Ukrainian Parties in Strasbourg? Rethinking the EU Eastern Partnership

Everybody agrees European Eastern Partnership needs to be reinvented, but creative solutions will be needed to address its political shortcomings.

On November 24th, representatives of the European Union met with the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, members of the so-called “Eastern Partnership” (Eap). Conceived as a framework to help these countries out of the turmoil and poor governance of the post-soviet years, its function as antechamber to EU membership had seemingly come to an end with the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass/Luhansk. Moscow’s brinkmanship was arguably intended to signal the limits beyond which it won’t tolerate further EU and NATO expansions, but the crisis in eastern Ukraine isn’t the only reason the EaP is in dire need of a redesign. As pointed out elsewhere, the program has long lost its steam both because of an increased resistance by EU member states to eastward expansion as well as a lack of significant progress by some of the six partners. Without the incentive of a future EU membership, the last summit has been largely dedicated to redacting a list of compelling deliverables to make sure the costs of economic structural reforms (as well as the risk posed by an irritable neighbor) are matched by sufficient political benefits.

The summit produced some very pragmatic and worthwhile projects, like the extension of the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). Nevertheless, it’s impossible to notice it failed to deliver satisfying answers to the political dilemma the Union is faced when dealing with EaP countries: to which degree is it willing to trade dialogue with integrity on matters of corruption?

Moral considerations aside, the EU has shown little foresight on this topic: by appeasing to any movement placing itself under the banner of Europhilia, leading to a disastrous endorsement of the Alliance for European Integration in Moldova and the equally corrupt Poroshenko in Ukraine, whose majority recently tried to gut the country’s main anticorruption body. These questionable friendships were likely tolerated because of a realist recognition that in these countries it’s hard to find a party or strong leader uninvolved in questionable activities; nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the strategy completely failed to account for the instability systemic corruption leads to. Where possible, the EU has tried to use an array of instruments to blackmail governments to comply with the standards it considers necessary for an effective “Europeanization”, binding reforms such as visa liberalization to internal political reform. This approach has glaring limits both in principle and in its functioning, especially in the case of Ukraine, the most problematic and yet promisingly committed of the EaP countries.


On an implementation level, most problems have surprisingly emerged from the European side, with the Dutch and Hungarians leading the block obstructing more ambitious objectives and “rewards” for Kyiv’s path to reforms. Conceptually, it also supposes a cohesion of pro-European civil society, ruling class and the structure of the State which would be unrealistic even if corruption wasn’t as endemic. As noted by a recent report, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) has failed to implement much of the suggested anti-corruption legislation because of a mix of factors: it privileges “PR stunts” over long-term, far-reaching laws; the government increasingly perceives civil society as a menace to its own power; high-level officials seem to be immune from punishment. What surprises is that the European Union seemingly lacks any interest in addressing the political incentives contributing to the metastasis of corruption. This isn’t the case for other aspects of the bilateral relationship: European organizations, both NGOs and institutional players,  have played a decisive role in backing civil society groups pressuring Kyiv to implement a plethora of reforms in healthcare, pensions and more. Aside from infrastructural investments, EU institutions are also playing a major role in fostering an effective civil service and a functioning party system. The focus on the State mechanisms is fundamental, but it lacks a regard to the people put in charge of the structures reform-minded Ukrainians and Europeans have built. What good is an anticorruption body if it can be undermined by the kleptocrats it is supposed to prosecute?

To bypass the rigidity caused by Member States, a viable solution may be the involvement of political parties of partner countries in the European Parliament, both as observers and active debaters

On this front, Europe finds itself in a bind. It’s true that Brussel can’t fix Ukraine’s decade-long problems by decree: it can only create the right conditions and help “the right people” lead the country out of the crisis. Nevertheless, it should also recognize that it will need to apply pressure on the ruling elites of EaP countries to get out of the impasse. As an external player, it’s best positioned to do so: what it needs is a set of punishing measures tailor-made for the political classes, short of negotiations breakdown but harsher than a slap on the wrist. This means it needs to start distinguishing between the State and politicians, between the parliaments and the lawmakers. To bypass the rigidity caused by Member States, a viable solution may be the involvement of political parties of partner countries in the European Parliament, both as observers and active debaters (without voting rights) on EaP-related issues. Taking Ukraine as an example, this would have two positive effects: first of all, involvement in EU decision making would make both Kyiv and Brussels more committed to a permanent relationship between the parts, as outlined by Andrew Wilson, and give Ukrainians more sense of agency in the direction their country is going into. Second, permanent political, non-technical collaboration with the Parliament could be followed by a tighter collaboration with European Parties beyond existing “token partnerships”. An inclusion providing active input to the EPP, ALDE, S&D and the other Europarties could not only incentivize further involvement of the parliament on foreign policy, but also introduce a system of peer oversight on matters of corruption.

This idea comes with numerous caveats: it supposes that Ukrainian parties would be willing to be put under the magnifying glass of “Strasbourg technocrats”, that the European parties would be willing to accept such a troubling responsibility, and that the benefits from being part of the European decision-making process would outweigh those of lacking oversight. Some may even question if the same parties often accused of lacking transparency and failing to live up the Parliament’s aspiration of being a chamber for the people are the best entities to be entrusted such a responsibility. Nevertheless, given how European integration is suffering from a lacking sense of direction, those who dread the idea of Eastern Europe drifting away from the security and freedoms of the EU need to think outside the box. With elections nearing in Ukraine and Moldova, the EU needs to exploit its privileged position and back the civil society’s pledge to bring change to the highest echelons of power. It will be a tough balancing act between respecting the countries’ sovereignty, acting as an arbiter and refining a much-needed exercise of soft power. Only through a creative use of its tools it will be able to help those seeking democracy and stability.


Michelangelo Freyrie

All the articles by Michelangelo Freyrie.

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