Alphen, Netherlands. 13 May. The Eastern Partnership is an attempt by the EU to enhance stability on the EU’s borders by assisting Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus in the areas of prosperity, trade, travel, anti-corruption and the just rule of law. Last week I attended and spoke at a fascinating conference in beautiful Budapest at the Central European University entitled “Eastern Partnership and its Prospects”, which had been jointly organised by my good friend Imants Lietgis, the former Latvian Defence Minister and Latvian Ambassador to Hungary. At the same time I enjoyed real Hungarian goulash soup for the first time and heartily recommend it. Goulash soup basically involves lumps of meat floating around in a clear broth.
Regular followers of my strato-dump know that the focus is all matters strategic. For much of the time that involves things that go bang and which burn huge amounts of tax-payers money normally far away and very usually very rapidly. Important though armed forces are they are not the real stuff of ‘strategy’. The real stuff (or should that be “The Right Stuff”) is the kind of engagement for which the Eastern Partnership was designed back in May 2009 when it was launched in Prague.
The Eastern Partnership goes right to the very heart of the community concept of international relations the EU pioneered and reflects and built on a fundamental principle of self-determination and the right of free, sovereign people to make free sovereign choices. All well and good? Well, no actually. There are three main problems with the Eastern Partnership and they can be thus summarised; Russia, the Eastern Partners, and EU member-states.
Let me deal with Russia first. All six of the Eastern Partners sit in and around Russia’s western and southern borders. At the heart of Russia’s current grumpiness is a fundamental clash of ideals. Whereas the EU seeks to support partners in the belief that whether or not a state is an EU member, aspirant or partner all European states should be part of a community of states in which standards of governance, rule of law and development are aspired to collectively. Moscow rejects this idea of community, believing instead that all the Eastern Partners, as former members of the Soviet Union, are firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence and should stay that way. Now, Moscow has created the Eurasian Economic Union to at least give a fig-leaf of legitimacy to its power ambitions, but Russia’s credo is essentially one of power does as power will – Realpolitik.
And then there are the Eastern Partners. Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the verge of war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia has a large Russia military presence on its territory and fought and lost a war with Russia in August 2008. Moldova faces immense challenges from corruption and the proximity of serious criminals to government, Ukraine is being dismembered by the Russians at present (still) and Kiev itself is doing nothing like enough to combat the endemic corruption, and Belarus is well Belarus; a one-man, one-vote, once dictatorship. All six face huge problems and all six seem unwilling to do much about them.
And then there is the EU and its member-states. During the conference I suggested that in parallel with the Eastern Partnership the EU needed a Western Partnership. Attend any meeting in Central and Eastern Europe and one thing rapidly becomes apparent – the conflict-crushing soul of the EU, the very reason for which it was created, has moved east since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western Europe is tired and sees itself as broke and has little or no appetite for the kind of grand stabilisation implicit in the Eastern Partnership.
However, the central and eastern Europeans do not exactly inspire confidence in the fulfilment of a Partnership that was in many ways their own creation. During the conference I also suggested that now is the time for them to lead and the Eastern Partnership is precisely the issue on which to lead. Sadly, my idea crashed and burned amid the petty splits and divisions between the Central and Eastern Europeans that were all too plain to see at the conference.
So, the Eastern Partnership has become the strategic equivalent of goulash soup – a few meaty bits floating in a sea of political indifference - big vision, little or no political substance. In other words yet another of those grand strategic EU initiatives that do make strategic sense, launched at an expensive summit, but which are then routinely undermined by politics, a lack of resolve and an absence of cash.
This is a real shame because at heart the Eastern Partnership offers a real alternative to the power cynicism of Moscow which if unchecked will in time spread like a contagion across much of Central and Eastern Europe. So, in spite of the forthcoming Riga summit the Eastern Partnership looks like becoming yet another strategic EU initiative that raises hope only for it to be dashed on the rocky shores of Europe’s own political cynicism.
Make no mistake the Eastern Partnership is the twenty-first century equivalent of the European Coal and Steel Community that way back in 1950 began the long road to post-war European reconciliation and hope. It also sits the front-line between hope and cynicism.
It was an honour to attend and to learn. The soup was good too.