On 26 September, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) approved an own-initiative opinion to mark the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). In this opinion, the EESC acknowledges the important achievements of this initiative, but also calls for further reforms in the areas of democratisation and fundamental freedoms. The opinion insists on the need to strengthen the role of civil society and to provide credible EU membership prospects to EaP states.
The first ten years of the Eastern Partnership can be considered as a success story in many ways. Since its creation in 2009, Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) have become the EU's 10th largest trade partner and most of them have implemented democratic reforms while improving their economies. Nevertheless, according to EESC's opinion, the time has come to reflect on the next possible steps.
Indrė Vareikytė, rapporteur of the opinion, said,
We can't accept the idea that one-size-fits-all anymore; countries that are on the frontline and have more ambition should lead the process. Ten years should be enough to share EU values and now the Eastern Partnership has to become a real partnership policy, not a receivers' policy.
The president of the External Relations section of the EESC, Dilyana Slavova, shared this view:
The Eastern Partnership is one of our top priorities and we are convinced that our relationship should be one of equal partnership, in which each side is beneficial to the other. A strong, secure and prosperous neighbourhood means a strong, secure and prosperous European Union, said Ms Slavova.
The main pending challenge for most EaP countries are democratic reforms. As stated in the opinion, "the EESC believes that the EU is first of all a union of values, thus the relations with its neighbours should also be based upon the same values and become conditional". Eastern Partnership countries should work to ensure that human rights, civil freedom, media freedom and the rule of law are respected and step up the fight against corruption.
Communication strategy and membership prospects
The opinion also mentions the importance of rethinking the EU communication strategy for the EaP region in the light of Russian influence as well as the Chinese and the Russian investment projects in the area. In this geopolitical context, the EESC strongly believes that the "the current priority for the newly elected European Parliament and the European Commission is to reach a consensus on the association and, possibly, membership prospects for the EaP states".
This prospective integration into the EU area could start with tangible measures such as the liberalisation of some services (the end of roaming, financial services), the accession of the associated countries to the European Economic Area or extending the freedom of movement for professionals by concluding agreements with the EU on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. The EU should also continue to contribute to a peaceful settlement of conflicts in the EaP region.
The EESC firmly believes that the role of civil society is key in reaching these goals. EaP countries have to put in place a mandatory legal framework that would enable civil society organisations (CSOs) to access information, hold the governments accountable and take part in policy-making processes. The EESC also underlines the need to assist EaP governments and CSOs in developing the tools necessary to assess and address gender inequalities.
The Eastern Partnership initiative is a specific dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy aimed at strengthening relations between the EU, its Member States and the six partner countries in the area: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. At the most recent Eastern Partnership summit, held in Brussels in 2017, the partners agreed on achieving "20 deliverables for 2020" divided into four priority areas: stronger governance, a stronger economy, greater connectivity and a stronger society, with civil society engagement at the top of the list.