STRASBOURG – In preparation for the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on November 24, Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg highlighted the importance of “concrete cooperation” with the European Union’s Eastern partners in a debate on November 14 and vote on November 15.

Eastern partners who made substantial progress on EU-related reform could be allowed to join the customs or energy union, MEPs said. The European Parliament also called for establishing a trust fund for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as well as keeping pressure on Russia to resolve conflicts in the EU Eastern neighbourhood.

“The approach behind this is to show readiness for partnership,” EPP President Manfred Weber from Germany told a press briefing on November 14, responding to a question from New Europe how realistic it is to create an Eastern Partnership Plus.

He noted that the economic dimension is the most powerful tool Europe has in its hands to show readiness for partnership. “I think that’s a good approach, but we have to define also clear criteria for those who want to join because, as I mentioned, the most difficult discussion for the moment is Turkey, the Customs Union, and there we say as EPP full stop of any further development on the Customs Union, on any improvement because for the moment we don’t see that Turkey is a partner which is working in our sense and our values. That’s why we have to be very clearly conditional in a way to offer this, to give this prospective but with clear criteria,” Weber said.

At the same press briefing, GUE/NGL President Gabriele Zimmer said “serious effort is going into this project. It’s an equivalent offer to accession to the European Union so in principle we’re in favour of closer cooperation with neighbouring countries in the East but we do feel there is a problem particularly with regards to Ukraine. Issues of rule of law because we know that there are cases of corruption and other cases, too”. European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn visited Ukraine on November 15 where he discussed EU–Ukraine relations and the reform agenda.

Zimmer argued in Strasbourg on November 14 that the EU is not really checking on whether the money that’s already being spent has ended up where it needs to be to promote development and social improvements in these countries. “But I think that expanding the Eastern Partnership can only be a positive thing if it is based on improving the situation for people on the ground above all and we’re not sure that is happening. It’s going to take time and above all it needs to be clear that this Eastern Partnership Plus is not aimed against other countries. I’m thinking here particularly about Russia,” Zimmer said, responding to a question from New Europe.

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 to deepen political and economic ties between the EU and six Eastern European partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

At a plenary debate that lasted a couple of hours on the afternoon of November 14, MEP Knut Fleckenstein from Germany (S&D), one of the two rapporteurs of the non-legislative resolution, stressed that a prerequisite for expanding cooperation with Eastern partners is to implement the reforms that have agreed on. “I guess we cannot say that we were satisfied across the board so the summit cannot just talk about what has been achieved to date, it has to talk about what still needs to be done and what still has to be achieved. It’s not a question of us in Brussels deciding on what has to be done. Each country is free to make its own decision,” Fleckenstein said, adding that the results of the cooperation have to palpable on the ground.

European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn meets with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (R) in Kiev, November 15, 2017.

Fleckenstein also called for fighting against corruption in the Eastern partners. “It also important for EU citizens who want to know from us what are we doing with our measures and what we are trying to achieve. They don’t want to hear that our measures have just led to a few oligarchs lining their pockets. They want to see thing actually achieved,” Fleckenstein said. “For the economic and political stability of our Eastern partners, the relation to Russia is extremely important. The Soviet Union does not exist anymore. Everybody should just accept that. But if you don’t take into consideration your neighbours and their interests you cannot live in peace with them,” he added.

For his part, Estonian deputy Minister of EU Affairs Matti Maasikas told the plenary that the Estonian EU Presidency attaches great importance to the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit.

“The Eastern Partnership is based on a free choice of the parties involved and is aimed at promoting prosperity, stability and good governance without affecting third parties. The Eastern Partnership is the only EU policy where we state that is not directed against anyone. Of course, this is true. Bearing that in mind, we also need to recognise that Eastern Partnership has become a part of the EU policy towards Russia,” Maasikas said.

He reminded that in March 2016, the EU foreign ministers adopted five guiding principles of the EU policy towards Russia and one of the principles is strengthening the relations with EU’s Eastern partners. “Active communication of the summit and its objectives is being coordinated with the EU member states and the six partners with the aim of providing factual information and countering disinformation,” the Estonian deputy Minister of EU Affairs said.

Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told the plenary that sustainable development of our Eastern neighbours matters to the EU. “We all realise that our neigbours strength is our own strength so security and stability of our neighbours is very much linked to our own security and the fact that five out of our six partners suffer from protracted conflicts is a reflection of the challenging situation that we have in our neighborhood,” Malmstrom said. “Our Eastern partners are indeed experiencing fort-hand the challenges of the European security architecture. The Eastern Partnership was never designed as a conflict resolution mechanism but it has a unique framework for building confidence and progressively strengthening the resilience of states and societies,” the Commissioner added.

As the debate from the EPP, German MEP David McAllister said, “As the Commissioner said, certainly we have a positive view of Association Agreements with Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia but there are certain breaks. It depends on the intensity of regional tensions and the willingness to embrace our democracy and partnership. The European Union should be clearer than it has been in the past in setting up demands, which are more practical and quantifiable to ensure that better support for civil society in our partner states”.

From S&D, Romanian MEP Victor Boştinaru argued that “the importance of these countries is witnessed by the way other actors like Russia behave when we try to bring them closer to the European project. He called for discussing the frozen conflicts because “these are ones that destabilise not only these countries but equally the region and have an negative impact on our union as well. In addition let’s not forger the cyber threat on partners and the daily propaganda that destabilise and negatively affect the perception on our union within those societies but trying the factioning of their institutions”.

The November summit between the EU and its Eastern partners should pave the way for a trust fund and reward reforms by offering them entry into customs union.

On November15, MEPs welcomed in the resolution the significant progress made since the last Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit, held in Riga in 2015. They pointed out that some Eastern partners have made major reforms and that Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova now benefit from free trade and visa-free regimes with the EU.

In the resolution, which was adopted by 519 votes to 114, with 47 abstentions, the MEPs are also in favour of clear benchmarks for future cooperation, stressing that no further EU deals will be ratified with a country that does not respect EU values or intimidates human rights defenders and journalists.

For the next Summit, to be held in Brussels on November 24, MEPs recommend: setting up a trust fund for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which could focus on private and public investments in social and economic infrastructure; creating an “EaP+” model for associated countries that have made substantial progress on EU-related reforms to offer them the possibility of joining the customs union, energy union, digital union or even the Schengen area and abolishing mobile roaming tariffs; supporting economic reforms aimed at phasing out monopolies, limiting the role of oligarchs, preventing money laundering and tax evasion; maintaining collective pressure on Russia to resolve the conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Transnistria and supporting the deployment of an armed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) police mission in Eastern Ukraine.