It is time for the EU to build security partnerships with its neighbours

By Eka Tkeshelashvili, Nicu Popescu and Pavlo Klimkin

The signatories of the joint call are former foreign ministers of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, Moldova, Nicu Popescu, and Georgia Eka Tkeshelashvili.

Since the launch of the Eastern Partnership over a decade ago our countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – have experienced a remarkable development of relations with the EU. Many of the declared goals of the EaP policy have been largely accomplished.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova now have Association Agreements, free trade areas, visa-free regimes and a network of business and people-to-people contacts that increased tremendously in the last few years. The energy security of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova improved, not least with substantial EU contributions on the financial, infrastructural and legislative front.

The EU is our countries’ first trading partner. And a vitally important one. Access to the EU market helped our countries diversify our economies’ which have been under systematic Russian pressures.

The EU has also offered billions in assistance to our countries, most recently with significant amounts of assistance offered in the context of the COVID19 crisis. These are considerable achievements of the last decade. But it is important to start planning for the next decade.

As we look at the decade ahead it is important to upgrade the Eastern Partnership in a way that builds on the already achieved successes, but also addresses remaining vulnerabilities.

Despite all the achievements of the EaP, so far the policy lacked one significant dimension – that of security.

When the European neighbourhood policy was launched in 2003, its declared intention was to stabilize the EU’s neighbourhood by contributing to the resolution of separatist conflicts. Since then instead of improvements we have experienced significant deterioration of security in the region.

The Transnistrian conflict in Moldova got further entrenched. Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 resulted in Russian occupation of South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of Georgia. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and ignited a large-scale conventional war against Ukraine.

These massive security threats have been the single biggest inhibitor on the achievement of other EaP goals. Security pressures, some hybrid, some conventional, make it more difficult for our countries to achieve prosperity, economic growth, a stable business environment and more stable democratic systems.

Illicit party finance, aggressive digital and TV propaganda, cyber attacks against state institutions and critical infrastructure, subversion of our institutions, or attempts to instrumentalize Church links are all complicating our countries’ progress. These are vitally important issues related to the functioning of our states, and stability in the European neighbourhood.

But the Eastern Partnership framework has been shying away from these hard, but unavoidable, domains of cooperation.

A recent European Commission communication, and EU Council Conclusions on the Eastern Partnership are steps in the right direction, aimed at developing a more ambitious and resilient framework for the EaP.

This is a positive development, albeit not fully sufficient. EU’s approach on resilience of eastern partners is based on economic, societal, environmental and digital pillars.

The main focus for cooperation in the security realm is on the fight against corruption and organized crime, improvement of the rule of law, and judicial reforms. Combating hybrid threats, ensuring cyber security, and cooperation in ESDP formats are the least developed components.

It is time for the EU to speak the language of power in Eastern Europe by becoming more geopolitical and developing stronger security partnerships with its neighbours.

Our shared interest is the building of states capable of protecting themselves from all kinds of threats, not least hybrid threats. It is not in the EU’s interests to have subverted, dysfunctional conflict-ridden states in its neighbourhood.

But so far not enough has been done to develop security partnerships with institutions in our security sector, be it intelligence services, or cyber security agencies.

Obviously, the EU as such has few prerogatives in such sensitive domains. But we strongly believe that a ‘Eastern Partnership Security Compact’ where the EU member states and the EU institutions can combine and coordinate funding, knowledge, intelligence or cyber capabilities.

Such measures could go a long way towards improving the security of the EU and its neighbours. We all believe in further enlargements of NATO and the EU, but such cooperation should also be an end in themselves.

The deteriorating security situation in the Southern Mediterranean in recent years meant that the voice of the EU has been less and less heard in that region. The situation in Eastern Europe is somewhat better.

The EU has a strong presence and a highly relevant profile. But it should no longer shy away from dealing with security matters on the European continent.

Such intensified security partnerships between the EU and its neighbours would help stabilise further the EU’s neighbourhood, but also make the EU a stronger global power.