“Reset” Button for Europe’s Backyard

The EU’s new pact with Eastern neighbors acts as a tabula rasa for needed reform

An original cartoon by Chan Lowe

Pushing the “reset” button on diplomatic relations is a popular endeavor nowadays. President Barack Obama just journeyed to Moscow in order to “reset” strained United States-Russia ties. The EU, though not in need of a “reset” because of strained ties with its eastern neighbors, is involved in a deep strategic reconstruction of those relations.

When the EU launched its new “Eastern Partnership” (EP) in May, the purpose was to promote further integration with the Union’s six immediate eastern neighbors – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The global financial crisis had made an updated and strengthened policy for the EU’s eastern neighborhood an urgent need. Equally important was the fact that all the countries concerned expressed an ambition to move closer to the EU.

Sweden’s assumption of the EU Presidency this month should help these efforts. However, it comes at a time when the Union’s eastern neighborhood faces severe challenges, with the financial and economic crisis hitting many of the partner countries hard.

Ukraine suffers from the sharp drop in global demand and trade, severely undermining its steel industry. Georgia’s economic success has been largely dependent on direct foreign investment, for which there is hardly any appetite today. Partner countries that are less integrated into the global market, such as Moldova, have seen the crisis arrive more slowly, but the real effect and recovery might be equally as bad.

The EP does not offer any quick remedies to the crisis. But it can provide a political framework and institution-building support to improve the deficiencies that made these countries so vulnerable to the crisis: imperfect market economies, weak state institutions, and continued corruption. The EP’s offer of deep integration with the EU in trade and energy carries with it considerable transformational power.

The other type of crisis that most of the partner countries are enduring is political. In most of these countries, democratic development has not yet reached a point where a change in government is a routine part of political life and can take place without risking stability. The EP is based on the profound values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Political association with the EU, and the process of integration under the EP, will promote reforms in these key areas.

The Swedish Presidency, together with the European Commission, intends to organize the first meeting of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum this autumn. We hope to see the start of parliamentary cooperation, as well as exchanges between local and regional authorities of the 33 EU and partner countries. At the end of the year, a meeting of EU foreign ministers and their colleagues from the six partners will assess the progress made so far and give guidance on the way ahead.

The Eastern Partnership is about EU integration, about the six countries moving closer to the EU’s values, legislation, and ways of working, and about the EU being there to support and help this convergence. In Russia, there is a perception that is sometimes fostered which suggests that the Partnership is directed against it. But this, of course, is untrue. On the contrary, Russia, like Turkey, will be welcome to take part in relevant activities within the Partnership’s multilateral dimensions.

The Eastern Partnership is not an answer to all the problems and difficulties that the six partners are facing. Nevertheless, it does represent a clear commitment by the EU to lend its political and economic support to their transition and reform – a process that should bring prosperity and stability to the whole region.


Carl Bildt, Foreign Minister of Sweden
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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