EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from the EaP countries have met in Brussels to summarize what have been done for the past ten years in the frame of the Eastern Partnership initiative and lay out its priorities for the near future.
“Those who want broader and deeper cooperation should be given the opportunity. And this is not discrimination of some countries at the expense of the others. Some countries are just seeking a lower level of cooperation. This is understandable,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said at the ministerial meeting.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia need a ‘higher’ level of cooperation; the three countries signed Association Agreement with the European Union. Their companies got access to the EU market, their citizens have the right to enter the EU without visas. Relations between the European Union and Armenia are based on the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. Belarus, however, has not signed even the agreement on simplifying the visa regime with the EU yet.
The essential part of the negotiations has been completed, Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, told Belsat TV. According to him, the sides are just waiting for [setting] the date and an opportunity turn the agreement into reality.
The EU helps its eastern neighbours reform their economy and public administration; it promotes increasing contacts between societies and supports non-governmental organizations. The Eastern Partnership provides officials, MPs and civil activists from East and West with opportunities to hold meetings and build connections.
“The Belarusian civil society sector got a chance to coordinate and consolidate its agenda in international relations and even voice their position,” Ulad Vyalichka, a representative of the EuroBelarus consortium, said.
Under the umbrella of the EaP, Belarus has received €110 mln For four years. With the help of the EU, a number of Belarusian roads and railways have been repaired, student exchanges have been financed, and the list goes on.
“Mention also may be made of investing in developing small- and medium-sized enterprises, energy issues, the strategic development of the National Bank bodies,” Andrey Yahorau, Director of the Centre for European Transformation, said.
But the lack of the basic cooperation agreement makes it impossible to start bigger projects. Over the past two years, Minsk and Brussels have not managed to agree even on Partnership Priorities.
“We are determined to get the Partnership Priorities Unfortunately, this process was suspended and it was not our fault. I hope that by the end of the year we will make progress with signing the agreements on visa facilitation and readmission. We will push for signing the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU,” Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey said in Brussels on Monday.
According to Belarusian political analyst Dzyanis Melyantsou, it is Lithuania that bars the Priorities Partnership from being ratified as it is outspokengly critical of Belarus’ constructing the nuclear power station in the proximity of Vilnius. At the same time, Minsk does not sign other important documents for another reason.
“They [Belarusian authorities] do not need more. And unfortunately, Brussels seems to be satisfied with the current state of affairs.Our civil society wants more, but it has no impact, it cannot make any of the parties be more ambitious,” Vyalichka stressed.
It should be recalled that the negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission began in 2014. Earlier, EU Delegation Head Andrea Wiktorin expressed hope that the document on simplifying the visa regime with Belarus would be signed at the end of 2018. As for the EU-Belarus partnership priorities, the Belarusian authorities have been saying that the signing of this agreement is the nearest prospect since 2017.
In 2018, citizens of Belarus got almost 700,000 Schengen visas and remained the world leader in the relative numbers of visas (issued per capita). If the agreement between Minsk and Brussels is not signed, the cost of Schengen visas for Belarusians may grow to €80.