The Eastern Partnership initiative, a cooperation involving six countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), emerged from a Polish-Swedish idea in June 2008, and developed into an official program one year later. The quest was to improve the relations between the EU and the partner countries in different ways, thus offering a prospect for them which can eventually lead to EU membership. (As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said: “to the south, we have neighbours of Europe. To the east, we have European neighbours”.)The program is based on bilateral as well as multilateral relations including political and economic ties, through meetings and conferences at different levels.
There are some challenges that the EaP will have to face. The program is not in the interest of all 27 EU-members. For instance, the Union for the Mediterranean, the Southern branch of the European Neighbourhood Policy, initiated by France, was a financial rival of the EaP from the beginning. Moreover, the constrictive financial framework for the program also limits the possibilities to act, especially in the time of the euro crisis 2011 was a prospering year for the EaP. The EU Presidency was held by Hungary and Poland, who both regard the EaP as a priority. Therefore, it also became a priority at the EU level. However, eventually no major political breakthrough was reached, for instance there is no agreement about the issue of visa liberalization yet. Despite this the program is already functioning not only in the political sphere, but also in other instances of society, where it improves fluently with a widening scope and a constant stream of new participants.
It will be up to the Danish Presidency to decide whether they want to prioritize the EaP or if they will break it up. Copenhagen plans a Presidency that will deal with issues already up on the table. In the current situation any new initiative would be left out in favour of urgent topics. The EaP is, however, functioning intensively, and will continue its work even if Copenhagen does not have the capacity to make particular efforts for its cause.
A little effort will be needed though. It is impossible for the whole EU to neglect the issues going on in the Partner States, for example the situation in Belarus or the Association Agreement with Ukraine. During the debates concerning the next long-term budget it will be significant to balance the financial resources within the European Neighbourhood Policy. The European Commission has to prepare a roadmap of how to continue with the EaP – implementing it will also be a task for Copenhagen.
According to Danish researcher Peter Munk Jensen, in order to proceed with the EaP, the Partner States also have to show their interest through economic and political reforms and democratization. These steps would benefit the EU by stabilizing and securing democracies along the Eastern borders. The Partner States had better not hope for EU membership in the short run, but the improving relations in trade, investments and other different fields can be fruitful for them in the long run. In order to gain anything of these, they have to play according to EU rules.
The biggest challenge ahead is the economic and financial crisis, a vis maior from the viewpoint of the Partnership. It does not only use up the financial resources of the program, but it is also time consuming, demanding energy and attention. The latter one can be compensated by enthusiastic work of those committed to the Partnership – businessmen, NGOs etc. However, the attention and commitment of the political decision-makers cannot be compensated. The Danish Presidency, with its agenda focusing on solving the crisis and economic and financial issues, will probably not be very helpful on this. Most possibly, the topic will be treated neutrally by Copenhagen.
In the near future the EaP will foremost be able to improve in the field of the civil sphere where the political constraints are not so strong. In the long run, this could be very useful for the democratising Partner State societies – even if, at least on the level of international politics, the Eastern Partnership program has to slow down.