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The Eastern Partnership

28.12.2020 - Article

Ten years ago, the Eastern Partnership placed the EU’s relations with its direct neighbours on a new footing and enhanced them across the board.

Via the Eastern Partnership, the EU supports and intensifies its political, economic, cultural and intersocietal relations with its neighbouring states Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine on the basis of shared values. It also supports developments in the partner countries which strengthen and promote democracy, the rule of law and the free market economy.

The form of cooperation can vary depending on the partner countries’ interests and ambitions and on how willing they are to undertake reforms. The Eastern Partnership also bolsters the countries’ relations with one another.

Key aspects of the Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership countries: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan (in orange)
The Eastern Partnership countries: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan (in orange)© Kolja21 via Wikimedia Commons

Germany and the EU have a particular interest in developments in their immediate neighbourhood. Under the auspices of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) the EU therefore promotes political and economic reforms in a number of its neighbouring states. The aim is to strengthen stability, democracy and prosperity, to foster closer political, economic and societal ties between these countries and the EU and to improve relations among the countries themselves.

The Eastern Partnership was set up specifically for the EU’s eastern neighbours (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) at a summit in Prague on 7 May 2009. Since then, it has formed the foundation for the partner countries’ bilateral relations with the EU, as well as for multilateral relations between the EU and its 27 member states and the six partner countries. The European Neighbourhood Policy and thus the Eastern Partnership are part of the EU’s foreign policy and therefore separate from accession policy. 

Family photo at the 2009 Prague Summit
Family photo at the 2009 Prague Summit© picture alliance/dpa

The Eastern Partnership provides a framework based on shared values for supporting the EU’s eastern partners on their path to becoming democratic societies guided by the rule of law and market economy principles. The Eastern Partnership promotes reforms by the partner governments and offers EU support to give additional impetus to political, economic and social change in these countries.

Association Agreements have been signed at bilateral level with the partner countries Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, while an enhanced partnership agreement has been concluded with Armenia. A new agreement is currently being negotiated with Azerbaijan. Belarus is the only country with which a framework agreement has not yet been concluded.

At multilateral level, four thematic platforms and a large number of associated programmes and projects address topics of mutual interest to all partner countries, thus facilitating cooperation and the exchange of experiences between them.

Four priority areas for cooperation were identified at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on 21 and 22 May 2015 and confirmed at the summit in Brussels on 24 November 2017: (1) good governance; (2) economic development; (3) connectivity, energy efficiency, environment and climate change; and (4) mobility and people-to-people contacts.

Unimpeded people-to-people contacts are a key element of functioning neighbourly relations, regardless of whether these contacts take place in the fields of business, science or research, between collaborating civil society organisations or in the private sphere. That is why visa liberalisation is one of the Eastern Partnership’s long-term goals. In a gradual process, the EU is helping its partners to create the necessary conditions for safe, well-organised travel. These conditions are to be laid down in action plans on easing visa requirements. After the conditions have been met, citizens of the partner countries should no longer require a visa for the EU (for stays of up to three months and provided they hold a biometric passport). Visa requirements were eased on 28 April 2014 for the Republic of Moldova, on 28 March 2017 for Georgia and on 11 June 2017 for Ukraine. The EU continues to monitor the ongoing fulfilment of the necessary standards after visa requirements have been eased. In cases of severe deviations, visa requirements may be reintroduced. Visa facilitation agreements are in place with Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result, visitors from these partner countries can enjoy a host of technical benefits, including lower visa fees and the option to schedule appointments online. Visa facilitation and readmission agreements are currently being negotiated with Belarus.

Following the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the Eastern Partnership in May 2019, which was marked by a range of celebrations and activities on the part of the EU institutions, member states and the partner countries, the future direction of the Partnership is now being plotted out. Over 200 governments and civil society representatives and institutions took part in a comprehensive consultation process with the European Commission and shared their ideas and expectations for the Eastern Partnership in the coming years. This input served as the foundation for a revised strategy for the future of the Partnership which was presented in April 2020. The new framework was endorsed by the Foreign Ministers of the EU in the Council conclusions on the Eastern Partnership published on 11 May 2020.

How does the Eastern Partnership work?

Merkel, Poroshenko and Hollande at the summit in Riga on 22 May 2015
Merkel, Poroshenko and Hollande at the summit in Riga on 22 May 2015© picture alliance / dpa

The Eastern Partnership is the most ambitious offer of cooperation under the European Neighbourhood Policy. It is fundamentally an invitation to conclude comprehensive Association Agreements with the EU that also cover the establishment of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs). In 2014, the EU signed Association Agreements with Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The agreements with Georgia and the Republic of Moldova have been in force since 1 July 2016. The agreement with Ukraine entered into force on 1 September 2017. Also as regards those partner countries that are not seeking EU association, the EU is endeavouring to intensify its bilateral relations, thereby putting them on a new footing. To this end, the current and partly outdated Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with the partner countries are to be replaced by extended framework agreements. The negotiations with Armenia on a new framework agreement were concluded on 27 February 2017 and the agreement was signed on 24 November 2017. Talks on the same type of framework agreement began with Azerbaijan in early February 2017.

At the same time, the Eastern Partnership aims to promote enhanced cooperation between all of the partners. This project-based cooperation focuses primarily on the following areas: (1) democracy and good governance; (2) economic development; (3) connectivity, energy efficiency, environment and climate change and (4) mobility and people-to-people contacts. Platforms have been set up allowing projects in these areas to be discussed and agreed upon. All EU and partner countries can take part; they often do so in cooperation with international organisations (such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe) or non-governmental organisations. Third countries may also be eligible to participate on a case-by-case basis. The range of existing projects stretches from supporting small and medium-sized enterprises to school partnerships via the internet to disaster risk reduction.

Who steers the Eastern Partnership?

Eastern Partnership logo
Eastern Partnership logo© EU

Meetings of the Eastern Partnership heads of state and government take place every two years and are the forum for steering the political process. Following the founding summit in Prague in 2009, the second summit, which was held in Warsaw on 29 and 30 September 2011, primarily concentrated on how to take the Partnership forward. Among other things, its participants agreed on enhanced cooperation in the economic and trade spheres. Lithuania hosted the third Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on 28 and 29 November 2013, at which the Association Agreements with Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine were initialled. At the summit in Riga on 21 and 22 May 2015, all participants reaffirmed their commitment to the Eastern Partnership and to intensifying relations, particularly in view of the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, the principle of differentiation was underscored. This means that relations are tailored to the individual partner countries.

The fifth Eastern Partnership summit took place in Brussels on 24 November 2017. The four key areas defined in Riga – good governance, market opportunities, mobility/people-to-people contacts and interconnectivity – were consolidated at this summit. The European External Action Service and the European Commission defined aims for each of these four areas to be achieved by 2020 (20 Deliverables for 2020). Further key issues included implementation of the agreed reforms by the partner countries and improvement of the countries’ resilience.

The sixth summit had been planned for June 2020 and was replaced by a video conference between the leaders of the Eastern Partnership on 18 June. The heads of state and government of the EU member states and their counterparts from the Eastern partner countries discussed the EU’s support in fighting the pandemic as well as the strategic partnership and its future. The sixth summit as originally planned will now be held in the first half of 2021.

In addition to the summits, meetings of the Eastern Partnership Foreign Ministers are held annually. There is also a trend towards ever more frequent top-level Eastern Partnership meetings in other spheres, as well, which bring together for direct talks the partner countries’ Environment, Justice or Home Affairs Ministers, for example.

The Eastern Partnership during Germany's Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2020

Many events and initiatives relating to the Eastern Partnership were held under Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2020. A youth conference originally set to take place in Saxony went ahead online from 24 to 26 September, with messages from the Minister of State for Europe at the Federal Foreign Office Michael Roth and the Minister-President of the Free State of Saxony Michael Kretschmer.

This was closely followed by a specialist conference led by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development from 1 to 2 October, where new objectives were set for the Partnership.

The Eastern Partnership Business Days, jointly organised with the German Eastern Business Association, NRW.Invest and the European Commission, then took place from 14 to 17 December. These offered the Eastern partner countries a platform to showcase the opportunities and conditions for economic activity that they can offer to German and other European businesses. 

On 25 November, the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) launched a network of Eastern Partnership think-tanks. Finally, the 12th Annual Assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum was held from 7 to 10 December, focusing on civil society work in the partner countries. During his opening speech, Minister of State Michael Roth assured Belarusian civil society of the European Union’s support and gave his thanks for the work done by civil society organisations to help further develop the substance of the Eastern Partnership.

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