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Anjum Shabbir
13th May 2020
Covid-19 External Relations & Trade

Insight: “Strengthening outwards in times of inward challenges: the EU Neighbourhood Policy and upcoming long-term objectives for the Eastern Partnership” by Anjum Shabbir

The Council of the European Union has approved Conclusions on the future of the Eastern Partnership Policy, a part of the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, ahead of the Heads of State or Government participation at the Eastern Partnership Summit later this year in June 2020.

The Council’s Conclusions are indicative of the higher and wider level of cooperation desired by the different sides through stronger bilateral agreements, and it is also significant to note the EU’s pattern of strengthening outwards at a time when it is facing serious challenges inwards (Brexit and COVID-19 – no explanation needed, rule of law issues in respect of Poland and Hungary, and, now freshly, the boat-rocking caused by the institutional, banking ‘Weiss saga’, namely the German Constitutional Court’s ruling of 5 May 2020).

Examples of strengthening outwards can be seen in the wider (not ENP-focused) extensive trade deals made by the EU with Mexico (no duties on trade in goods) and Vietnam (eliminating 99% of all tariffs). It is worth noting at this point that the Eastern Partnership agreements are also economically beneficial to the EU, with the latter becoming the EU’s 10th largest trading partner, including in terms of diversification in exports of goods and integration in global value chains.

European Neighbourhood Policy

In context, the EU has an external relations policy which is governed by Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). The European Neighbourhood Policy (reformed in 2015) is a part of that external policy framework under which special relationships with neighbouring countries can be built ‘to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation’ through agreements (Article 8 TEU), the specific legal bases for which are Articles 206 and 207 TFEU for trade matters, and Articles 216 to 219 TFEU for international agreements.

The Eastern Partnership

The ENP currently covers 16 countries, six of which form the Eastern Partnership:

  • Armenia,
  • Azerbaijan,
  • Belarus,
  • Georgia,
  • Moldova, and
  • Ukraine.

The Eastern Partnership is a specific regional dimension of the ENP, the result of a process that began back in 2008, upon the European Council’s invitation, driven along further that year following the five day Georgia-Russia war and the impact of that conflict on regional stability. It was launched in 2009, and is a joint initiative between the EU, its Member States, and the six countries referred to. Summits are organised every two years and they provide political guidance for further development of the Eastern Partnership.The first Eastern Partnership Summit took place in May 2009 (Prague), then in September 2011 (Warsaw), November 2013 (Vilnius), and in May 2015 (Riga).

In December 2015, European Council conclusions applied an ‘incentive and conditionality-based approach’ – namely one that is tied to EU funding.

In December 2016, the Heads of State or Government made a Decision which led to the bilateral agreements that are currently in existence, enabling a tailored approach. The EU and its Member States currently have association agreements (under the legal bases referred to above) with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as ‘deep and comprehensive free trade agreements’ (a new instrument created after the reforms) with all three of these countries. The EU has a lower level of cooperation with the other three countries, namely a comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement with Armenia, which has been applied provisionally since June 2018 as it is not yet in force; is currently in negotiations for a new agreement with Azerbaijan; and with respect to Belarus, is in negotiations and has managed to come to agreement on visa facilitation and readmission.

The last Summit to have taken place was in November 2017 (Brussels), at which the ‘20 Deliverables for 2020’ approach was adopted, implementation of which was monitored by the Commission and EEAS, and which is now coming to an end, explaining the need for new long-term objectives.

The Council’s conclusions

As this is an area of shared competence, Member state representatives have to give their mandate for negotiations for these specific agreements, and endorse long-term objectives. The Council of the EU is also responsible for providing the mandate for negotiations, signing the agreement on behalf of the EU and adopting the final decision implementing it into EU law.

The current Council Conclusions come pursuant to a Commission consultation in May 2019, followed by European Council Conclusions of 20 June 2019 reaffirming the importance of this strategic partnership and inviting the Commission and the High Representative to ‘evaluate existing instruments and measures and, on the basis of appropriate consultations, to present by early 2020, with a view to the next Eastern Partnership Summit, a further set of long-term policy objectives’. The Commission did so through a Joint Communication of 19 March 2020 setting out its proposal, which centres around trade, connectivity, and economic integration, democracy, the rule of law, climate and the environment, and digitalisation.

The Council’s Conclusions broadly reflect that proposal. They refer to the agreement between all parties that the ‘20 Deliverables for 2020’ strategy should be continued and built upon.

Expectedly, they refer to the ongoing shared commitment to a common area of ‘democracy, prosperity and stability’, and ‘a rules based international order, international law, territorial integrity, independence, sovereignty, fundamental rights, sustainable development, and a market economy’.

There is a change in language to reflect principles in going forward, emphasising the ‘strategic importance’ of the Partnership, and calling for the future relationship to be ‘ambitious, flexible, effective’ and ‘inclusive’.

The main takeaway appears to be the overriding policy principle of ‘strengthening resilience’, which is to apply across the board.

The influence of the COVID-19 pandemic is also clear, the Council including the objective of joint solidarity and joint cooperation in managing challenges and expressly referring to the crisis (this reflects an existing approach: 3 billion euros in funding was provided to certain ENP countries to assist them in the fight against COVID-19, 1.2 billion euros of which was for Ukraine, and for an overview of funding for the six Partner countries see here).

Turning to specific fields, it is noteworthy for including objectives in the fields of environmental law, energy and climate change (in which it states that all actors must take ‘urgent action’), digitalisation (suggesting to extend the benefits of the Digital Single Market), the economy, and sustainability (through the International Platform on Sustainable Finance, in order to fulfil the goals set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement and UN 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals).

As well as the following objectives that are in line with Article 8 TEU:

  • on the rule of law and respect for fundamental values: the Council ‘encourages Eastern partner countries to increase efforts for additional progress in all fields, including outstanding challenges on justice and anti-corruption, as well as on gender equality, the enabling environment for civil society and non-discrimination as well as freedom of association, assembly, speech, and on hate speech.
  • human capital development, social justice and education,
  • the need for democratic (including electoral) and structural reform, strategic communication (referring to the need to tackle disinformation),
  • visa liberalisation dialogues,
  • security (perhaps more controversially vis-a-vis Russia) and disaster risk management, and
  • the need for international conflict prevention law to be respected (considered particularly important in this region after the Russia-Georgia war and the annexation of Crimea in 2014).

It also expresses a desire for the incentive approach (first applied in 2015, referred to above) to be continued. The Policy is entitled as ‘beyond 2020’ rather than ‘2020-2027’: the current framework of funding in the amount of 15.4 billion euros for the European Neighbourhood Policy under European Neighbourhood Instrument Regulation 232/2014 covering the period 2014-2020 is expiring. The title may therefore be temporally unspecific because it is unclear how it will be funded under the Multiannual Financial Framework.

Next steps

The next Eastern Partnership Summit of the Heads of State and Government (with the President of the European Council attending) is expected to take place in June this year. Results of the Partnership since 2017 will be reviewed, and it will be an opportunity to endorse the proposed long-term policy framework based on the Joint Communication, these Conclusions, and the input of the Member States and Partner Countries and provide a mandate to develop a new set of tangible deliverables.

The Commission and the European External Action Service will then propose realistic and measurable result-oriented deliverables in the second part of 2020, after further in-depth discussions with Member States, partners and key stakeholders.

Read the Council’s Conclusions and the accompanying press release.


Anjum Shabbir is an Assistant Editor at EU Law Live


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