Reform agenda and territorial conflicts
Since eleven years, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) has played an important role in strengthening cooperation between the EU and our six partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine). This is one of the most important aspects of the external relations of the European Union.
The EaP countries are pursuing their reform agenda with different pace and our relations with them vary in quality and intensity. And they certainly constitute, with their 72 million inhabitants, an important geopolitical factor for the EU. A majority of EaP countries have issues with territorial integrity or host conflicts on their territory. Particularly when we have the worrisome situation in Ukraine in mind, which has been going through a major crisis for several years now, fuelled by foreign interference, and whose territorial integrity has been undermined. The EU has a key security interest in a peaceful neighbourhood, helps solving related issues, and facilitates peaceful conflict resolution.
Citizens’ support and trust
EaP is our neighbourhood and we belong together culturally and historically. People in those countries care about Europe and our cooperation has had a tangible impact in the lives of EaP country citizens. The EU’s power of attraction is confirmed by a growing interest of citizens in travelling, studying and legally working in the EU and vice-versa. Our policies strive to facilitate people-to-people contacts and bringing people closer to us, especially by creating opportunities for young people to study in Europe, but also by studying together in EaP countries. As a result, a majority of citizens in the Eastern Partnership countries now have a positive perception of the EU. The European Union is the most trusted international institution, and the only one trusted by the majority of EaP citizens.
Yesterday, we held a virtual meeting together with Commissioner Oliver Varhélyi and the foreign ministers of the EU27 and their counterparts from Eastern Partnership countries. The videoconference took place in the difficult context of the serious health, economic and social crisis triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The EU and its Member States have been severely hit by this crisis and had to take measures of an unprecedented nature to deal with it.
EUR 1 billion to support EaP countries in handling coronavirus pandemic
Although the direct health impact has been so far lower in the EaP countries, the pandemic has put serious pressure on health systems. The situation is aggravated by conflict zones, ageing populations and ongoing problems related to governance and the state of the economies. Like everywhere else, countries in the region are set for a recession, which can bring additional risks related to social stability and security, with possible spill over to the region and beyond.
To mitigate this risk, we have mobilised, together with Member States, close to EUR 1 billion to support EaP countries covering immediate needs but also the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. Yesterday we have delivered a clear message to our Eastern Partners: even in difficult times and mainly because times are difficult, you can count on us. We are standing by you and we support you.
Disinformation and fake news
This context has also encouraged another virus, the virus of disinformation, with fake news undermining the role of the EU. EaP countries have been an important target for those campaigns. We widely denounced such developments and announced measures to combat them. We will also continue the dialogue with our EaP partners on the fundamental issues of democracy and the rule of law. This is of crucial importance and deserves special attention in the context of the current pandemic.
The Council Conclusions of 11 May have outlined future policy objectives for the Eastern Partnership under the framework of resilience. We had yesterday very good feedback from our partners. Next week the Leaders of the EU Member States and our partner countries will meet to develop a new set of tangible, operational and concrete deliverables for the years to come.
At a time when Europeans might, for understandable reasons, be tempted to turn inward to deal with the problems resulting from the current crisis, it is important to realise how much the future of the Union, and in particular that of our common security, depends on what is happening outside our borders, notably in our Eastern neighbourhood. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us how interconnected we are and how much we need to cooperate.