Eastern Partnership: Prospects for a European Future

28 June 2023 /

10 min

[Editorial partnership] When the foreign ministers of Poland and Swedish first proposed the idea for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in May 2008, the response was somewhat muted. Reaching out to the EU’s eastern neighbours was not a priority for many member states. Some had their eyes turned towards the Mediterranean. For others, economic ties with Russia remained paramount. After all, there was money to be made. Nord Stream hadn’t yet been opened, let alone Nord Stream II. A few months later, Russian tanks entered Georgia after fighting between the country’s military and Russian-backed separatists. Five days of war left hundreds dead and around 200,000 people displaced. Russia quickly recognised the contested regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics, despite their international status as part of Georgia. 

An ever-challenging partnership

The Eastern Partnership thus became central to the EU’s response to the RussoGeorgian War. It sought to strengthen ties through political and economic relations and educational and cultural exchange. An initiative of the EU External Action Service, it took the form of a forum between the EU, its members, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. The first official meeting of Eastern Partnership foreign leaders took place in 2009. Notable achievements include the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements signed between the EU and Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine respectively. These agreements facilitate the gradual elimination of trade barriers through the adoption of European law and institutional reforms. Meanwhile, people-to-people exchanges, such as Erasmus+ programs and visa-free travel, increased mobility and expanded trade. In one light, these accomplishments signify progress and a potential, if uncertain step towards EU membership. 

Zooming out from the EU framework reveals a different story. While in the 2020s the EU’s role and self-image became increasingly “geopolitical”, the EU’s attention in the 2010s was elsewhere: the Eurozone crisis, domestic terrorism, asylum and migration. Russia had however never stopped looking at the world geopolitically. It saw the EaP as another example of what it regards as Western encroachment and moved to react.  it used economic pressure to turn Armenia against negotiating an EU association agreement in 2013. Worse was to come in Ukraine.

Across the region, geopolitics and hard power have moved faster than the EU’s bureaucratic mode of foreign policy. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against long-disputed Armenian enclaves. Thousands died. While in 2023, the EU is enjoying some success as a mediator, shared “Eastern Partnership” still did little to prevent earlier fighting.

In Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream party has strong connections with Russia. Economic ties have strengthened since the full-scale invasion due to cheap energy and Russian migration. In March 2023, a proposed “foreign agents” legislation targeting civil society groups sparked massive protests. While Georgia officially aspires for EU and NATO membership, today it looks to be on a different path.

In Belarus, pro-democracy protests erupted in 2020 and 2021 due to election rigging by President Lukashenko. Despite international pressure and sanctions, the regime suppressed the protests and still holds power. In June 2021, Belarus suspended its involvement in the EaP, increasing concern that political union with Russia may be on the horizon.

Apart from Ukraine, Moldova has the strongest ties forged through the Eastern Partnership. Liberal pro-European President Maia Sandu sees European integration as a priority. The country gained candidate status in June 2022. Nevertheless, protests associated with pro-Russian politicians attracted tens of thousands in the same year, taking advantage of escalating prices. Moreover, Russian troops still occupy the breakaway region of Transnistria, as they have since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Ukraine: partner in the spotlight 

Among the six members, for clear reasons, lately special attention has been paid to Ukraine. The country became a focus for the EU shortly after the creation of the Eastern Partnership when pro-Kremlin President Yanukovych came to power in 2010. At the time, EU-Ukraine relations focused on political dialogue, trade and investment, and sectoral reforms. The EU also provided financial assistance to support Ukrainian democratic and economic development. In November 2013, Yanukovych suspended negotiations, refusing to sign a planned association agreement and opting for closer ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. 

Ukraine’s pivot away from its pro-European path sparked widespread protests known as “EuroMaidan”. The government’s violent repression of the initially peaceful demonstrations fuelled rebellion and exposed corruption and abuse of power. Meanwhile, Russia offered a $15 billion aid package. Protesters saw the offer as a tactic to keep Ukraine aligned with Russia and distant from the EU. The protests escalated in February 2014, resulting in deadly violence and Yanukovych fleeing to Russia with Kremlin assistance. Shortly after, Russia illegally annexed Crimea through a manipulated referendum that was rejected by Ukraine and condemned internationally. In response, the EU adopted a stance of non-recognition and imposed several sanctions, including bans on imports, exports, and EU investments involving the peninsula, and the exclusion of Crimean public entities from various programs.

In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko became the new Ukrainian president, aiming to stabilise the country. Ukraine signed the EU association agreement, promoting trade and economic integration as a crucial step towards full membership. The EU provided financial assistance for Ukraine’s stabilisation and reform efforts for agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and civil society. Ukrainians gained visa liberalisation in 2017. The association agreement came into force that same year and EU-Ukraine relations focused on reforms concerning governance and decentralisation, rule of law and anti-corruption measures, and energy.

Despite improved EU-Ukraine relations, recent events have shown the limitations of EU sanctions on Russia since 2014. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 prompted a strong and unified response from the EU, including extensive sanctions and humanitarian, financial, and unprecedented military support to Ukraine. The Union and its member states have mobilised resources totalling around €69 billion, implementing measures like the “EU-Ukraine solidarity lanes” for essential goods, humanitarian aid, and agricultural exports and suspending duties on Ukrainian exports. Furthermore, the EU has provided temporary protection to those fleeing the war.

Shortly after the invasion began, Ukraine applied for EU membership, seeking a special procedure and immediate accession, but the request was denied. Candidate status was granted by the European Council in June 2022, raising concerns among other countries awaiting approval. The EU is supporting the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes committed by Russia. MEPs emphasised the protection of women and children among Ukrainian refugees, condemning sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war. 

Gender and energy: concrete challenges as a drive for cooperation

Indeed, gender equality, protection against violence, and access to resources are key priorities in the Eastern Partnership. The EU has launched various initiatives to promote gender equality in the region. The EU4Gender Equality: Reform Helpdesk supports governmental reforms for equal opportunities, while the EU4Business initiative empowers women-led small and medium-sized enterprises. The EU4Dialogue project focuses on implementing the Women, Peace and Security agenda and promoting women’s inclusion in peace processes. The Eastern Partnership agenda for “Recovery, resilience, and reform” emphasises gender equality and empowerment across policy areas through gender mainstreaming and responsive budgeting. Moreover, the EU committed to ensuring that at least 85% of its external actions prioritise gender equality. Additionally, the EU supports awareness campaigns by UN Women and the UN Population Fund, reaching millions of people in Eastern Partnership countries to promote gender equality and non-discrimination. The Partnership for Good Governance facilitates women’s access to justice, implements gender equality standards like the Istanbul Convention, and enhances legal professionals’ skills through institutional reform and capacity building.

Cooperation with Eastern Partnership countries is ongoing and, in some cases, synergetic. For example, government delegations from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine participated in a study visit to Brussels in December 2022 to forge closer ties with the EU, present their efforts to promote gender equality in different areas and explore how EU experiences can be applied in each country to achieve gender equality. While progress has been made by the six countries in the Eastern Partnership, there is still considerable work ahead. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, the ranking of all Eastern Partnership countries, except for two, deteriorated from 2021 to 2022. Moldova and Armenia, on the other hand, made notable improvements.

When considering the future of the EU’s engagement with its eastern neighbours, another element that cannot be overlooked is the European Green Deal (EGD). Energy was at the roots of the European political project from the outset and today the EGD is framing European societies’ future. Launched in 2019, it aims to decarbonize the EU’s economy in alignment with the Paris climate agreement. This initiative extends to all policy areas, including foreign relations. Energy shapes geopolitical relationships in the EaP countries, where Russia’s gas exports and transit fees are crucial sources of revenue. Dependence on fossil fuels leaves these countries vulnerable to Russian actions, as demonstrated by the attacks on the Ukrainian grid. Investing in green energy offers decentralised and resilient power sources, reducing these weaknesses.

In discussions at the Committee of Regions in November 2022, several delegates called for the green transition and decentralisation to become central pillars of the Eastern Partnership. While crises from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine have centralised decision-making across the world, renewable technologies on the other hand lend themselves to alternative, more democratic forms of governance, involving for example communities or municipalities. Similarly, Ukrainian environmental NGOs have argued that replacing Soviet-era energy systems with heat pumps and solar panels can keep public services online, even amid ongoing fighting.

Evoking the US’s Marshall Fund for the post-war reconstruction of Europe, both Olaf Scholz and Ursula von der Leyen have called for the EU to commit to rebuilding Ukrainian infrastructure after the war. The European Investment Bank has already committed over 3 billion euros to repair damaged buildings in the Donbas, of which 50 per cent will go towards the energy efficiency of homes. Amid the rubble, green construction offers the hope of a different future, with warmer homes, cleaner air, and a break from long ties of dependency. The same prospect should extend across the Eastern Partnership.


Debates on the EU’s relationship with its neighbours often revolve around the membership question. Accession processes are meant to steer candidate countries towards full membership, but they are no guarantee. The candidate countries of the Western Balkans have no clear timetable for joining. Indeed, what candidacy means is unclear. Turkey has gone backwards, possibly irreversibly, since becoming a candidate in 1999.

Just a few days after the full-scale invasion, Commission Ursula von der Leyen declared that Ukraine was “European” and that “we [the EU] want them [the people of Ukraine] in”. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian prime minister is talking “two years” and Emmanuel Macron is talking “decades” (he previously vetoed candidacy for Albania and North Macedonia in 2019).

Throughout the EU’s history, its relationships with its neighbours have been shaped by political choices, not technocratic processes. Greece, Spain and Portugal entering the European Community was a cornerstone of their democratic transitions. The same is true for the eastern European countries that joined through the 2000s and 2010s. In opening the door to Ukrainian and Moldovan membership, the EU may have made a similarly momentous decision. However, an obvious risk is that membership gets dragged into the weeds of bureaucratic processes with the road ahead becoming less and less clear.

To avoid such an eventuality, the EU should seek to build deep relations with its eastern neighbours around a shared vision of the future. For 21st-century Europe, the fight for gender equality and for the protection of the climate are such challenges, and indeed also necessary pillars of a peaceful future. In the Eastern Partnership, the EU has a framework that identified a fundamental challenge but that lacked a sufficient response. In the coming years, the EU should reinvigorate it in form and substance. A green, feminist Europe will be a safer and more united one too.

A collaboration with Jamie Kendrick from the Green European Journal

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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