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The leaders of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have a lot to reassure in Brussels on Tuesday.
The so-called ‘trio’ – the three most EU-enthusiastic members of the bloc’s Eastern Partnership program for the former Soviet republics – want to convince the European Union to continue bringing them together, while recognizing that they will not be club members. soon.
In other words, they aim to be friends of the EU with advantages; full commitment can wait.
Closer ties could also be beneficial for the EU, which wants to have friendly and democratic neighbors to the east and prevent them from falling under Russia’s sway. But the EU also fears being drawn into instability and conflict in the region.
This means the trio of prime ministers have their work cut out for meeting with senior officials in the EU capital, given recent events – including a build-up of Russian troops on its border with Ukraine and talks about a plot to overthrow the government in Kiev.
In a press conference on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his government had intelligence on a possible Russian-backed coup attempt involving one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov. The Kremlin denied the allegation and Akhmetov issued a statement calling it an “absolute lie”.
Meanwhile, Georgia is mired in a deep and long-lasting domestic political crisis, which has largely crippled its government and has drawn strong criticism that the country is backing down from previous democratic advances. Efforts to mediate the crisis, including by the President of the European Council Charles Michel, have proved largely unsuccessful.
And in Moldova, initial enthusiasm and high hopes for a new pro-EU government have been dampened in recent weeks by the uneven handling of a dispute with Russia over natural gas contracts. Although Chișinău made a deal with Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, to ensure sufficient supplies for this winter, critics in Brussels say the deal included concessions that would give Moscow too much leverage over the political future of Moldova.
Despite such turmoil and setbacks, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal insisted his government was determined to follow a Western trajectory that would one day lead to officially joining the club.
“We would like to say in the most vocal way that our three countries have the unwavering goal of becoming full members of the EU,” he told POLITICO in an interview last week.
Shmyhal cited Ukraine’s efforts to tackle climate change in concert with the EU’s Green Deal as well as cooperation on energy, digital regulation and cybersecurity as examples of the will to more closely integrate and adopt EU standards and practices. He also said Ukraine could provide storage for an EU strategic reserve of natural gas, although the country would likely have to prove a bit more stable before EU capitals agree. .
Any prospect of EU membership is years away for the trio. None of the three has been declared a candidate country for EU membership. And even achieving this status does not guarantee a membership card, as Western Balkan countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia can attest after many years of detention in various waiting rooms. .
But proponents of closer ties to the trio say it is imperative that they be urged to move forward on a pro-Western path with democratic reforms.
“If we are not able to provide these countries with some sort of new, larger agenda for the next decade, then we may face the problem that the motivation for reforms in these countries will start to erode,” said Andrius Kubilius, a Lithuanian center. right-wing member of the European Parliament and one of the first champions of the trio concept.
The concept arose after EU policymakers concluded that the three countries were more likely to strengthen ties with the EU than other Eastern Partnership members. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a military conflict that was mostly settled in a brief war last year, while Belarus has become openly hostile to the EU, with strongman Alexander Lukashenko trying recently to use migrants as a weapon to destabilize neighboring Poland and Lithuania.
Kubilius said he and other supporters of the concept envision the trio’s broad integration into the EU’s single economic market, as well as their commitment to the EU’s four fundamental freedoms: movement of goods, people, services and capital.
“One of the reasons the EU is not providing these countries with some sort of more ambitious agenda is simply because several major capitals – we know which ones – they are skeptical of all the next steps in the process. ‘enlargement before the European institutions are reformed, “Kubilius said in an interview.
France, in particular, has been cold on EU enlargement and has repeatedly insisted that the EU must make fundamental adjustments to its structures before it can absorb new members.
Already, the trio have each signed political association agreements with Brussels and they are already enjoying the benefits of “deep and comprehensive free trade areas” which give them some access to the single market.
The approach is not entirely new. In 2002, the then President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, called for a “proximity policy” which would try to find a compromise between too rapid enlargement of the EU and crushing the ambitions of neighboring countries. .
“A proximity policy would not start with the promise of membership and would not exclude possible membership,” Prodi said. “The aim is to extend to this neighboring region a set of principles, values and standards which define the very essence of the European Union.
He added: “I want to see a ‘circle of friends’ surrounding the Union and its closest European neighbors, from Morocco to Russia to the Black Sea.”
This circle of friends, however, has not quite formed, especially when it comes to Russia. And one of the main challenges of the trio’s initiative is the risk of further provoking Moscow, which has worked aggressively to thwart the Eastern Partnership initiative in the past.
In 2013, the Kremlin persuaded then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon his plan to sign an association agreement with the EU – a broken promise that sparked the Maidan revolution and led to the invasion and annexation of Crimea as well as the Donbass War. that still creaks today.
Lithuanian MEP Kubilius said that even when working within the trio, the EU should be prepared to do more or less with each partner country depending on individual circumstances, following the traditional principle of ‘more for more “- which means that more democratic reforms should yield more advantages on the EU side.
He admitted that the trio’s track record was a mixture of progress and hindsight. But he argued that such a step backwards only underscored the urgency of stepping up the EU’s diplomatic efforts.
In Tbilisi, he said the ruling Georgian Dream party and its opponents appeared determined to destroy each other. “Now they are making every possible mistake, Georgian Dream and the opposition, and that only benefits the Kremlin,” he said, adding: “If Georgia fails to resolve its political crisis, then , you know, the EU should really assess it as a kind of backtracking and the ‘more for more and less for less’ principle should be a very clear message. “
But overall, Kubilius said the key point was to give the trio ambitious, tangible and achievable goals for stronger integration with the EU, without the inevitable delays and disappointments of a formal membership application.
“At the moment, with the accession, it is obvious that this is not going forward,” he said. “So we have to have some sort of intermediate goal.”