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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A ‘Reset’ Button for Europe’s Backyard

Pushing the “reset” button on diplomatic relations is a popular endeavor nowadays. U.S. President Barack Obama just journeyed to Moscow in order to reset strained U.S.-Russian ties. The European Union, 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 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.

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The Eastern Partnership — originating from a Polish-Swedish initiative — offers to the six countries a substantial upgrading and deepening of relations with the EU in key areas. In trade and economic relations, it clearly sets out the objective of establishing deep and comprehensive free-trade areas between the EU and the partner countries. It confirms full visa liberalization as a long-term goal (with visa facilitation agreements in the meantime), promises enhanced cooperation on energy security, diversification and efficiency, and it comes with dedicated programs and projects to help the neighbors in their integration and reform efforts in all these areas.

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 might be equally as bad, and they are likely to recover more slowly.

The Eastern Partnership 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 Eastern Partnership’s offer of deep integration with the EU in the areas such as 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 the country’s stability. The Eastern Partnership 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 this partnership, will promote reforms in these key areas.

The Swedish EU presidency will concentrate on starting up the concrete work — the nuts and bolts — of the partnership. The establishment of comprehensive institution-building programs, designed to support reform of key institutions in each partner country, should take place before the year’s end.

Some flagship initiatives proposed by the European Commission will finally see the light of day as well, and new projects and initiatives are likely to be developed. Here, Sweden will attach particular importance to energy-efficiency programs, which will serve not only the purposes of enhancing energy security and reducing costs but will also be an important contribution to the fight against climate change.

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 that 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 is foreign minister of Sweden. © Project Syndicate.