The European Union’s Eastern Partnership strategy beyond 2020 is already testing the European Commission’s ambition to increase the EU’s role as a global player. The Belarusian people have, for several weeks, been peacefully protesting the fraudulent Presidential election results despite Alexander Lukashenko’s regime using brutal force against them. The EU’s response has been slow and lacks any well-thought out strategy around how to assist the Belarusian people.
One cannot become a global leader without fostering stability in its closest neighbourhoods. The past year has been devoted to assessing progress, achieved with the EU’s support, in the six Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine - and formulating the tasks for another decade of partnership. The 2020 EaP Summit in June was expected to set an ambitious partnership agenda but, due to the Covid-19 crisis, was limited to a video conference meeting with poorly communicated messages.
Despite existing shortcomings, the EU’s engagement with its eastern partners is one of its greatest foreign policy achievements. EaP countries hold strong pro-European attitudes and aspire to the EU’s ideals, values and way of life. The protesters in Belarus might not be carrying EU flags, but they are calling for a respect of their basic citizens’ rights: to freely choose their leaders and to make decisions about the future of their country.
“Only when the EU’s actions speak louder than words will we be able to truly call ourselves a global player”
The EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative enables a citizen’s dialogue and is something that must not lose impetus. The events in Belarus have confi rmed that the EaP initiative cannot be treated as something that is already set in motion and only requires good management from now on. Success lies in the ability to react quickly and meet the needs and ambitions of partner countries and their citizens and enabling them to reach their full potential.
The EU must provide not only support and guidance on how to continue reforms, but also to inspire continuous transformation. The joint communication by the European Commission and the European External Action Service on the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020, published in advance of the EaP Summit, offers partner countries participation in the latest EU programmes such as the Green Deal and digitalisation.
The approach of including partner countries into existing EU programmes, instead of inventing separate ones, is most welcome, as the next decade of the EaP must be about a fully inclusive and real partnership. It is also important to recognise the associated status of Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, which are seeking acknowledgement of their EU membership aspirations. Such recognition won’t divide the EaP countries, as some have argued; on the contrary, it will encourage the non-associated countries to gravitate towards the success of their peers. In comparison, the European Parliament’s recommendation on the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020 is more ambitious, including a forward looking and strategic vision for the EaP region.
It speaks about a gradual integration into the EU’s single market and access to its four freedoms and is more detailed on the methods of the EU’s engagement, including the need for clear benchmarks to assess progress and shortcomings. Moreover, it expands on the issue of security cooperation, taking it beyond the usual hesitation and cautiousness, and calls for greater engagement in addressing security challenges and conflict resolution in the EaP region.
Those are the actions fit for a true global leader. Parliament’s recommendation harks back to basic European values. It sets clear conditionality on adherence to human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, free and fair elections, democratic institutions, media freedom and the fight against corruption, and makes them key criteria for closer political partnership and financial assistance.
“It is important that the EU’s actions match the speed of developments in Belarus, provide support and facilitate an environment in which the Belarusian people can enter into a national dialogue without the interference of external actors”
EaP citizens subscribe to these criteria. The Belarusian people are peacefully revolting against Lukashenko’s regime in order to defend their rights and freedoms. Thousands of peaceful protesters all over the country have been unlawfully detained, brutally beaten and tortured - including minors.
Medics, human rights defenders, political opposition, lawyers, bloggers, journalists and activists are constantly harassed, intimidated and prosecuted and some, including presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, were forced to flee the country. Belarusian society has changed tremendously over recent weeks and we are witnessing a rebirth of dignity and national identity in the country.
It is important that the EU’s actions match the speed of developments in Belarus, provide support and facilitate an environment in which the Belarusian people can enter into a national dialogue without the interference of external actors. Only when the EU’s actions speak louder than words will we be able to truly call ourselves a global player.