Anna Westerholm. Photo Sofia Nahringbauer
The EU policy towards the countries in eastern Europe, the Eastern Partnership (EaP), is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. We had a chat with Anna Westerholm, who is Ambassador for the Eastern Partnership.
Following the EU’s expansion eastwards, Sweden and Poland took a joint initiative for a special EU policy towards the eastern neighbourhood, i.e. the six former Soviet republics that were now the EU’s closest neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
In spring 2009, the Eastern Partnership was launched at a summit in Prague. Its purpose was to support modernisation and development in the six countries, to create welfare and promote the countries’ political and economic links to the EU.
Ten years later, the Eastern Partnership is the obvious, coordinated EU policy and partnership with our eastern neighbours. The agenda is extensive and broad, and the partner countries differ in their ambitions regarding reform and in their perspectives on the EU.
Anna Westerholm at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is Sweden’s Ambassador for the Eastern Partnership. Her task includes conducting general policy, contributing to the development of the Partnership, drawing up a strategy and promoting Swedish priorities. Together with other colleagues at the department with responsibility for bilateral relations and Swedish reform support to these countries, Ms Westerholm tries to maintain a high Swedish profile. The Eastern Partnership concerns several ministries, and Ms Westerholm also works closely with both the Swedish Institute (SI) and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), who support reforms in eastern Europe in line with the Eastern Partnership’s aims.
Ms Westerholm says that there have been many positive changes in the countries concerned, but that much remains to be done.
“Our relations with these countries have grown stronger, trade has doubled and it is now much easier for many people to travel to the EU. Three of the countries, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, have association agreements and extensive free trade agreements with the EU, as well as visa exemption. Armenia has an extensive partnership agreement.
“The Partnership means that the EU now, unlike before, has a common strategy and policy for the region. The cooperation is based on the countries’ different ambitions and conditions. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have come the furthest and are aiming for EU membership in the long term. Their progress in their reform efforts would not have been possible in ten years without the Eastern Partnership,” says Ms Westerholm.
With regard to democratic development, the situation for human rights, the rule of law and gender equality, the decade has not solely entailed successes. Many challenges remain. The human rights situation in Belarus and Azerbaijan remains problematic, and all of the countries are struggling with extensive corruption, which hampers their reform efforts. Poverty is also a major problem. The increased welfare has not benefited everyone.
“Despite the obvious challenges remaining, we must not forget how the initial situation in these countries looked, and what impressive progress has been made during a relatively short time. In the development perspective, this pace can almost be compared with the speed of light.
The main focus within the Partnership is on each partner country’s bilateral relationship with the EU. In addition, there is a multilateral cooperation with common and overarching priorities. Since the summit in 2017, the work has focused on four areas:
1) economic developments and market opportunities;
2) reinforcing institutions and good governance;
3) connectivity, energy, environment and climate; and
4) mobility and people to people contacts.
Recurring themes are gender equality and anti-discrimination, strategic communication and support to independent media, as well as the role of civil society and the possibility to act, which are being integrated into all four areas.
Sweden is a driving force when it comes to the impact of these issues on cooperation, and we focus especially on democracy and anti-corruption. Matters relating to young people, the climate, disinformation and hybrid influence, and people to people contacts are given priority, and digitalisation issues are also high on the agenda. The Eastern Partnership is linked to the EU’s global strategy and to the work on implementing the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.
“The absolute top priority is that the countries must continue implementing the fundamental reforms they have undertaken to make.” EU support is dependent on the countries’ own work.
“Having said this, and in addition to evident progress in the partner countries, we must not forget that we in the EU also benefit from this cooperation. Perhaps one of the most important effects is that it has changed the EU’s perspective on the region. We no longer talk about our eastern neighbours as post-Soviet states, but as European partners, they are our eastern European neighbours. We no longer discuss our relations with these countries through the lens of the past, but more in the light of a joint future. This in itself is significant,” says Ms Westerholm, and adds:
“So even if we should not underestimate the challenges and all that remains to be done, there is a lot to celebrate this year, when we look back at the developments since 2009.
The tenth anniversary is being marked in Stockholm on 4–6 November with a ministerial seminar and Development Talks at Sida, and with a civil society conference and cooperation with the Riksdag.
Written by Taimi Köster