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Leaders ofÂ Ukraine, Moldova and GeorgiaÂ have a lot of reassuring to do in Brussels on Tuesday.
The so-called â€œtrioâ€ â€” the three most EU-enthusiastic members of theÂ blocâ€™sÂ Eastern Partnership programÂ for former Soviet republics â€” wants to convince the European Union to keep bringing them closer, while recognizing that they wonâ€™t be members of the club any time soon.
Put another way, they are aiming to beÂ the EUâ€™sÂ friends with benefits; full commitment can wait.
Closer ties could also bring benefits for the EU, which is keen to have friendly, democratic-minded neighbors to its east and to keep them from slipping into Russiaâ€™s grip. But the EU is also wary of being dragged into instability and conflict in the region.Â
That means the trio of prime ministers have their work cut out in meetings with top officials in the EU capital, given recent events â€” including a Russian troop buildup on its border with Ukraine and talk of a plot to overthrow the government in Kyiv.
At a news conference on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his government had intelligence about a possible coup attempt, backed by Russia and involving one of Ukraineâ€™s richest oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov. The Kremlin denied the allegation and Akhmetov issued a statement calling it â€œan absolute lie.â€
Meanwhile, Georgia has been mired in a deep, long-running domestic political crisis, which has largely paralyzed its government and drawn sharp criticism that the country is backsliding from previous democratic advances. Efforts to mediate the crisis, including by European Council President Charles Michel, have proven largely futile.
And in Moldova, initial enthusiasm and high hopes for a new, pro-EU government have been dampened in recent weeks by the uneven handling of a dispute with Russia over natural gas contracts. Although ChiÈ™inÄƒu reached a deal with Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy behemoth, to secure sufficient supply for this winter, critics in Brussels say the deal included concessions that will give Moscow too much say over Moldovaâ€™s political future.
DespiteÂ suchÂ troubles and setbacks, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys ShmyhalÂ insisted his government was committed to following aÂ Western trajectory that would one day lead to formally joining the club.
â€œWe would like to say in the most vocal way that our three countries have the unwavering objective of becoming full-fledged members of the EU,â€Â he told POLITICO in an interview last week.
Shmyhal cited Ukraineâ€™s efforts to fight climate change in concert with the EUâ€™s Green Deal plan as well as cooperation on energy, digital regulation and cybersecurity, as examples of the push to integrate more closely, and adopt EU standards and practices. He also said Ukraine could provide storage for an EU strategic natural gas reserve, though the country would likely need to prove a bit more stable before EU capitals ever agreed.
Any prospect of EU membership is years off for the trio. None of the three has been declared a candidate country for EU membership. And even attaining that status is no guarantee of a membership card, as Western Balkan countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia can attest after many years of being held in various waiting rooms.
But advocates of closer ties with the trio say it is imperative they are given incentives to push ahead on a pro-Western track with democratic reforms.
â€œIf we shall not be able to provide those countries with some kind of new, bigger agenda for the next decade then we can face the problem that motivation for reforms in those countries will start to erode,â€ said Andrius Kubilius, a Lithuanian center-right member of the European Parliament and an early champion of the trio concept.
The concept arose after EU policymakers concluded that the three countries had more prospects of closer EU ties than other members of the Eastern Partnership. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a military conflict that was mostly settled in a brief war last year, while Belarus has become openly hostile to the EU, with strongman Alexander Lukashenko recently trying to use migrants as a weapon to destabilize neighboring Poland and Lithuania.
Kubilius said he and other supporters of the concept envision broad integration of the trio into the EUâ€™s single economic market, as well as their commitment to the EUâ€™s four fundamental freedoms: the movement of goods, people, services, and capital.
â€œOne of the reasons the EU is not providing those countries some kind of more ambitious agenda, itâ€™s simply because several big capitals â€”Â we know which ones â€”Â they are skeptical about any kind of any next steps of enlargement before EU institutions will be reformed,â€ Kubilius said in an interview.
France, in particular, has been cool on EU enlargement and has insisted repeatedly that the EU needs to make fundamental adjustments to its structures before it can absorb new members.
Already, the trio have each signed political association agreements with Brussels and they already enjoy the benefits of â€œdeep and comprehensive free trade areasâ€ that grant them some access to the single market.
The approach is not entirely new. In 2002, then-European Commission President Romano Prodi called for a â€œproximity policyâ€ that would try to strike a compromise between enlarging the EU too quickly and squashing the ambitions of neighboring countries.
â€œAÂ proximity policy wouldÂ not startÂ with the promise of membershipÂ and it wouldÂ not exclude eventualÂ membership,â€ Prodi said. â€œThe aim is to extend to this neighboring region a set of principles, values and standards which define the very essence of the European Union.â€
He added, â€œI want to see a â€˜ring of friendsâ€™Â surrounding the Union and its closest European neighbors, from Morocco to Russia and the Black Sea.â€
That ring of friends, however, has not quite come to be â€”Â especially where Russia is concerned. And one of the major challenges for the trio initiative is the risk of further provoking Moscow, which has worked aggressively to thwart the Eastern Partnership initiative in the past.
In 2013, the Kremlin persuaded then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon his plan to sign an association agreement with the EU â€”Â a broken promise that set off the Maidan Revolution and led to the invasion and annexation of Crimea as well as the war in Donbas that grinds on even today.
Kubilius, the Lithuanian MEP, said that even when working within the trio, the EU should be prepared to do more or less with each partner country depending on individual circumstances, following a traditional principle of â€œmore for moreâ€ â€”Â meaning more democratic reforms should yield more perks from the EU side.
He acknowledged the track record of the trio was a mix of progress and backsliding. But he argued that such backsliding only underscored the urgency of stronger EU diplomatic efforts.
In Tbilisi, he said the governing Georgian Dream party and its opponents seemed bent on mutual destruction. â€œNow they are making all the possible mistakes, Georgian Dream and the opposition, and this is beneficial only for the Kremlin,â€ he said, adding: â€œIf Georgia will not be able to resolve their political crisis, then, you know, the EU should really evaluate it as some kind of backsliding and then the principle â€˜more for more and less for lessâ€™ should be a very clear message.â€
But overall, Kubilius said the key point was to give the trio ambitious, tangible and achievable goals for stronger integration with the EU, without the inevitable delays and disappointments of a formal application for membership.
â€œRight now, with membership, itâ€™s obvious it does not go forward,â€ he said. â€œSo we need to have some kind of intermediate goal.â€