Deepening differentiation within the Eastern Partnership and the emergence of the pan-European "Trio". Analysis by Dionis Cenușa



The Associated Trio is, on the one hand, the product of the implementation of the Association Agreement, and on the other hand, the result of the geopolitical differentiation that has deepened within the Eastern Partnership...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor


Eastern European states that prioritize European integration launch a geopolitical platform within the Eastern Partnership (EaP). More precisely, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have decided to lay the foundations of an "Associated Trio" (June 17, 2021). The new initiative comes to differentiate further the implementing standard of the Association Agreements with the European Union (EU) from the other three EaP states - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. The establishment of the Trio indicates that the deepening of the differentiation within the EaP is inevitable. This differentiation signals a geopolitical division of the EAP, which stands out even more because the other three EPA countries distance themselves from the European model for authoritarianism or integration into the Eurasian political and economic space.

According to the head of Ukrainian diplomacy Dmytro Kuleba, the creation of the “Trio” proclaims that "
there is no alternative" for European integration neither for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, nor for the EU. In other words, the three countries must take a proactive degree in the direction of European integration and EU membership alike. It remains to be seen whether the EU recognizes and accepts the associated Trio for adoption. The first opportunity to see a collective political reaction from European decision-makers to the new initiative is the upcoming EaP summit, scheduled for autumn 2021.

The eight fundamental aspects of the Trio

The text of the memorandum launching the Associated Trio refers to the aspirations and European identity of the participating states, which allows them to make use of Article 49 of the EU Treaty on eligibility for accession (MAEIE, May 2021). The document, signed by the foreign ministers of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, highlights several key aspects related to their pan-European approach:

First, these countries mutually support their desire to join the EU and reiterate their adherence to European values, though without specifying them. Second, the document emphasizes the sovereign right of countries to decide their own future, which is regularly challenged by Russia. The three countries call for EU support in areas related to their sovereignty, territorial security and resilience. In this regard, the Trio expresses its desire to initiate or intensify security and defense cooperation with the EU. The hybrid threat, cybersecurity and contributing to EU peacekeeping missions are explicitly mentioned. In some cases, cooperation in these areas materializes.

Third, the Trio participants reiterated their commitment to implementing the Association Agreements with the EU. These documents are pictured as an intermediate stage, not the ultimate goal. Fourth, understanding the role of EaP in the structure of the EU's neighborhood policy, the Trio states are assuring that they do not want to break away from EaP. On the contrary, these countries declare their intention to coordinate their steps within the EaP, following the European aspirations and their common and individual needs. In fact, the Trio can be perfectly integrated, even in a separate format, in the European neighborhood planning process. Nevertheless, the three states realize that they can earn more if they combine the Trio with EaP. In any case, the three countries pointed out in the memorandum the idea that cooperation in the EaP should not limit bilateral relations with the EU.

Fifth, the initiative aims to create a new format of inter-institutional coordination, on the one hand, between the foreign ministries of the three countries and, on the other hand, between the Associated Trio and the EU institutions. Sixth, the Trio aims to identify new opportunities, tools and areas of cooperation that serve the interest of economic integration and political association with the EU, providing tangible results for citizens. They highlighted seven areas of major interest for trilateral and trans-regional coordination with the EU: transport, energy, digital transformation, the green economy, justice, strategic communication and health. In addition, the continued involvement of the Trio in EU programs and agencies is proposed, based on availability.

Seventh, the countries emphasized the positive impact of European assistance, with the application of the "more for more" principle and conditionality. At the same time, access to alternative funds available in the EU is required, including for the implementation of projects of common interest. Eighth, the memorandum establishes a regular and ad-hoc principle of coordination mechanism between the participating states at the level of foreign ministers, officials and experts (civil society). The Trio's coordination centers will be located within the foreign ministries, which can avoid financial costs but does not exclude the need for additional human resources. The three countries also agreed to unify diplomatic efforts to lobby the EU on issues of common interest related to their European desideratum. To the same extent, the Trio plans to enter into dialogue with other regional platforms, of which the Member States are members.

The memorandum does not refer to the coordination of compliance with EU sanctions. In this field, Moldova is often more reticent than Ukraine and Georgia when sanctions target Russia and, more recently, Belarus. Leaving the Trio involves a simple procedure - by written notification. Finally, the Trio states did not provide in the memorandum the possibility for other states of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia) or the Western Balkans to join, indicating the exclusive nature of the respective pan-European club of states.

Possible internal obstacles and external challenges

The establishment of the Trio fully corresponds to the interest in advancing European integration in the associated countries - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, the new initiative risks facing some internal difficulties and external challenges. The shortcomings in domestic policy can affect the effectiveness of coordinating the Trio's actions vis-à-vis the EU. On the other hand, the coalition of these states can turn them into a common target of Russian actions (disinformation campaign, etc.). Additionally, if it is misunderstood, the Trio can generate confusion and frustration among other members of the EaP, resulting in declining interest in the EaP in general.

Therefore, the internal obstacles that may intervene in the proper functioning of the Trio are related to political instability and the difficult implementation of reforms tangential to European integration. Crises in these countries usually result in the frequent collapse of governments and the paralysis of reforms. Thus, after the 2019 and early 2021 elections, Moldova had two short-term and one interim government - led by Maia Sandu, Ion Chicu and Aurel Ciocoi, respectively. In the case of Ukraine, after the 2019 elections, there was a short government, followed by a second one starting in March 2020, led by Oleksey Honcharuk and Denys Shmyhal respectively. Moreover, internal political crises may slow down reforms related to European integration, creating imbalances between the progresses of the implementation of the Association Agreements at the level of the Trio states. The crises are also shifting the focus to reforms that are not exactly close to the European integration, at least in practical terms. An eloquent example is the political instability in Georgia, from 2019-2021, which led to the discrediting of the ruling party and the (self-) isolation of the opposition from the decision-making process (
NEE, April 2021). For these reasons, the Trio states must ensure that politically unaffiliated public officials occupy positions in the focal points within the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Only in this way can a certain continuity be ensured at the national ministerial level, but also in transnational inter-ministerial communication. If these proposals are implemented, they can also provide the Trio with protection against the aftermath of internal turbulence.

The external challenges that could complicate the promotion of the Trio are mainly related to the actions of Russia, on the one hand, but also difficult-to-anticipate reactions from other Eastern Partnership states, on the other hand. The weak element of the Trio is Moldova, where pro-Russian political forces (the Socialists Party) have already suggested that the initiative should be abandoned, due to the geopolitical vector of Georgia and Ukraine, which also includes NATO membership. Proponents of Russian influence see danger in the mechanisms that seek to establish the Western model of government. It brings to power pro-European forces that want to reduce dependence on Russia. At the same time, the deterioration of the political situation in Belarus, the diverting attention of Armenia due to the effects of the Karabakh War in 2020, but also the explosion of self-confidence of the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan have further reduced the similarities within the EaP. Therefore, the Trio can become an even more robust reference that can lead to increased EU support for further expanding reforms, including in critical areas of state functioning. In the longer run, in the event of the failure, inefficiency or stagnation of the Eastern Partnership, the Trio could become an alternative platform for European integration in EU’s eastern neighborhood.

In lieu of conclusions…

The Associated Trio represents, on the one hand, the product of the implementation of the Association Agreement, and on the other one, the result of the geopolitical differentiation that is deepening within the Eastern Partnership. For the Trio to function in line with the objectives set out in the memorandum, it must prevent the risks of frequent political instability that leave its mark on reforms aimed at European integration.

Furthermore, the Trio states need to communicate effectively and persuasively with the EU in order to institutionalize the initiative. This effort must not jeopardize the already complicated situation within the EaP, where Belarus is moving in the opposite direction of European integration, and Armenia and Azerbaijan need assistance to reconcile positions around Karabakh. Finally, internal and external challenges seem solvable, but the first step in the right direction requires maximum synchronization of the speed and quality of the European integration process across Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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