Ambassador Gert ANTSU: ”We just cannot afford to lose interest in Eastern neighbors”

19.01.2022 (Caucasian Journal). In December 2021, the leaders of the EU and of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) met for the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels. It was the first EaP summit in four years. EaP is a joint policy initiative launched in 2009 to strengthen relations between the EU and its six neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.  

To better understand the results of EaP Summit, Caucasian Journal asked Ambassador Gert ANTSU (Estonia), Special Envoy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Eastern Partnership, to comment on the future of EaP and relations between EU and South Caucasus states. This is the second interview of Gert Antsu to CJ; the first one can be found here.

▶ ქართულად: Read the Georgian version here.

▶ Հայերեն: 
Read the Armenian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Many people across Europe and our region in particular have been looking forward to the EaP Summit. Now, we have seen the official statements as well as some experts’ opinions, but have been seeking for the insider’s comments – well-informed, neutral, and professional. Did you have any high (or low) expectations from the recent EaP Summit? Was there anything that surprised you, in other words was very different from what was expected?

Gert ANTSU: I would say that the expectations were moderately high – after all, there had been no summit for four years, and meeting up at the level of heads or state was already a positive political signal. Furthermore, there had been ample time to put together and discuss the future goals and set-up of Eastern Partnership – at least between the EU member states. Even if there was not to be a revolutionary change in the Partnership, the steady continuation of integration of the partner countries with the EU was a worthy aim, and I very much hoped that any possible squabbles over the wording of the joint declaration would not derail the real integration process. There were difficult negotiations between the EU member states and also between the EU and the partner countries, but I am happy that in the context of high geopolitical tensions it all ended well, we got an agreement on the joint declaration, and in 2022 we can start implementing the new directions of the policy.

AK:  Could you share your overall impression of the Brussels Summit? Is there anything you might add regarding the countries from Association Trio (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) in particular? 

GA: The Association Trio countries have significantly upgraded their cooperation over the last year. Clearly they have set themselves higher ambitions regarding their European integration, and they have been adamant that these ambitions should be recognised. In the final phase of negotiations, there was a lot of discussion how exactly this recognition would be phrased, and in the end a wording was found that was suitable for all sides. I think it would be unfortunate if the ambitions of the three countries would be any lower, as this would signal a decreased attractiveness of the European project, so it was good that they pushed on until the last moment. Obviously, on the EU side there are always hesitations regarding the inclusivity of the partnership – we should certainly give the possibility for all partner countries to progress as rapidly as they want, but at the same time, we should not hold back those making the most rapid progress and having the highest ambitions. 

AK:  As an EaP professional, you have been following the projects underway, and monitored the state of relations between EU and the EaP countries, that ranged widely from successful EU’s moderation in the Caucasian affairs to Belarus’ defacto withdrawal from EaP in response to EU’s sanctions.  If you take a look at the EaP agenda in general before and after the Summit, which concrete projects were boosted, if any? Perhaps you may observe any shifts in priorities?

GA: I do not think that the priorities have shifted much. Perhaps the communication has shifted a bit giving a bigger prominence to “top-ten targets” and concrete infrastructure projects. I believe that having those visible projects will give the citizens in the partner countries a better understanding about how the EU is supporting them and making their lives better – improving air or water quality or building new highways is more tangible than some of the more abstract aspects of the partnership. At the same time the focus on the common values as a basis for the Partnership and the reform efforts that the partner countries need to undertake is still there at the centre of EaP.

 EU assistance has been higher in countries where the progress of reforms is faster. EU cut down its assistance when there was serious backtracking in a partner country… The “more for more” principle will hopefully keep motivating countries to move faster in order to reap more benefits.

AK: It seems that out of the three “Trio” states, only Moldova can report a steady progress in respect to democratization and good governance in the recent years.  Is “Trio” still viewed as a valuable tool, from your viewpoint? Does it have a future for from EU’s perspective, or is set to become an internal format for the three states only?

GA: We can be happy for Moldova’s progress for sure, although I would add that Ukraine keeps making steady progress as well – as Moldova started from a lower basis, their progress is more visible. More broadly, I think part of the answer lies in your question – you are comparing the three countries and that’s where the trio will be useful – for benchmarking, for learning from each other. At the same time, I do not expect special formats created for the EU+3, be it ministerial or any other level, except in certain areas where there three countries are objectively in a different class, trade for example, where there has been a ministerial meeting already before the pandemic. Although I would still hedge the answer by saying that, if in the longer term the three countries will move even further ahead of the other three, we may well need to treat differently on a formal plane as well. 

AK:  In her speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen mentioned “expanding high-speed internet to rural Georgia, or to rolling out fibre optic cable under the Black sea.  In this connection, can we touch upon the correlation between EU’s economic assistance to EaP states, and their adherence to democracy and reforms?

GA: We have already seen over the years that the EU assistance has been higher in the countries where the progress of reforms is faster and the level of democracy is more advanced. In one case, the EU significantly cut down its assistance when there was serious backtracking in a partner country. I believe that this sort of conditionality should remain an important tool in the future as well, the “more for more” principle will hopefully keep motivating countries to move faster in order to reap more benefits – not just assistance, but market access for instance. 

Even if there is occasional “reform fatigue” in the partner countries and the progress has not been linear, even if that the lack of clear membership perspective is frustrating, no one has been to come up with a credible alternative path of development.

AK:  Finally, what’s your forecast for the next EaP summit or summits? From your viewpoint, is there a “worst-case scenario” under which EU eventually may lose interest or political commitment in some of its Eastern neighbors, leading to erosion of EaP? 

GA: When we look at the geopolitical developments in the region, be it over the last few weeks, months or years, I believe we just cannot afford to lose interest. This applies equally to the EU and to the partner countries as well. For the EU, this is our direct neighbourhood, for the partner countries the closer partnership with the EU will also in the future represent their best opportunity for development, security and prosperity. Even if there is occasional “reform fatigue” in the partner countries and the progress has not been linear, even if that the lack of clear membership perspective is frustrating, no one has been to come up with a credible alternative path of development. Rather it is being better and better understood, that rule of law, lower level of corruption or other vestiges of a normally functioning state are necessary for the partner countries themselves, not because they are demanded by the EU. So my expectation today would be that as the last summit has set the goals and the means for reaching them for years to come, the next summits will be useful for highlighting the political importance of the partnership, for taking stock and moving the integration further. 

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here.  Read the Armenian language version here

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of Estonian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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