The following originally appeared in Global Europe. Jacqueline Hale is a senior policy analyst (Caucasus and Central Asia) at the Open Society Institute-Brussels.
There is no doubt that the Prague Accord establishing the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in May 2009 upped the ante, offering a more political, less technocratic relationship in place of the artificially wide net cast by the European Neighbourhood Policy over the Union's eastern and southern borders. This apparent privileging of the 'European neighbours' over the Southern "neighbours of Europe" brings with it a useful multilateral track on four thematic areas, complementing a deeper offer from the EU in bilateral and trade relations.
For civil society groups two of those thematic platforms; democracy, good governance and stability and people-to-people contacts seem particularly promising. In the absence of a clear headline commitment to 'human rights' (note 'democracy and good governance'), the implicit linking of the new policy to the Council of Europe, of which all of these countries bar Belarus are members, nevertheless provides a useful hook those activists engaged in encouraging governments to implement those European standards to which they have signed up yet are failing to fulfill.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) were also represented in Prague—albeit cooped up in a hall way from the main event: Groups from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine together with counterparts from EU member states and Brussels-centred networks set to work on turning the promise of a new Civil Society Forum offered under the EaP into a workable reality. On the one hand, the creation and convening by the European Commission of a funded space for CSOs represents a clear upgrade in arrangements: Civil society actors have previously had to knock on the door of the European institutions in-country and in Brussels to make their voices heard or receive political and moral support, in situations—as in Azerbaijan and Belarus—where they are barred from sitting at the same table as their respective governments. As a testament to the Commission's efforts to ensure a meaningful forum, a first meeting held in November brought together over 200 CSO representatives, some of whom are the most engaging and independently-minded critics of their governments.
The Civil Society Forum may have its limits however. Despite the invitation of CSOs to the EaP table—albeit in a supporting role—it is unclear what process will underwrite their formal contribution to the governmental thematic platforms. These platforms remain opaque and distant from civil society: Some have already taken place—we find after the event—and work programmes agreed, in the case of the platform on Democracy, Good governance and Stability, largely consisting of 'best practice' sharing, training and networking and pooling of information. So given this fait accompli, how will the Civil Society Forum engage? Will the governmental thematic platforms formally consider and incorporate the recommendations of similar thematic working groups established by civil society forum experts? To what extent might invited civil society rapporteurs be permitted to monitor constructively the debates and report back on the discussions? These may seem like bureaucratic technicalities, but as ever, when civil society is formally incorporated into a government-driven process (even one led in good-faith by the European Commission) there is always a risk of cooptation.
This brings us to the crux of the problem: it is unclear how civil society from the region, together with their EU-based civil society partners on the Civil Society Forum can fulfill its watchdogging role, holding to account decisions taken in a multilateral context where there are no clear benchmarks—where the official emphasis of the policy is on extending carrots to the likes of Ilham Aliyev and Alexandr Lukashenka, rather than pointing out the continuing failure of their administrations to meet existing obligations to guarantee the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens.
With the favoured riposte of transition governments still being that they 'need more time' many civil society actors view the pre-existing bilateral tools offered by the European Neighbourhood Policy framework as the main and most valid reference point for efforts to press for political reform. In particular the publicly-agreed bilateral Action Plans contain commitments which serve as benchmarks of government progress across a range of sectors, including in the all important political sphere. On a recent trip to Brussels, partners from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia delivered their assessment of respective governments' progress in 2009 towards achieving commitments undertaken in 2006. The process is similar to the Accession country progress reporting undertaken by the Commission for candidate countries, although in the eyes of civil society from the Southern Caucasus it has less to do with securing a membership perspective for their country than borrowing the best of the Enlargement policy into a framework through which to call governments to account and thereby lever reforms.
The EaP multilateral framework does not yet offer this opportunity for critical engagement by Civil Society. It remains to be seen whether the Civil Society Forum, as part of the machine, will be successful in pushing for such a role. In the meantime, if pursued courageously by the Commission, the ENP bilateral commitments under the Action Plans (old or to-be-renegotiated as in the case of Ukraine) do offer the stick to complement the carrot of the EaP. The European Commission and the Partners must therefore not allow 'exchanges of views' and 'dedicated workshops' to replace and detract from the bilateral commitments signed up to Eastern Partners under their respective Action Plans. As for civil society, whilst it cannot turn down this rare offer to engage directly in a tripartite process, nor should it sacrifice its scrutiny role for second-tier club membership.