The third business forum of the Eastern Partnership finally offered a crystallized vision of the business community’s perspective on this initiative’s potential to promote trade and economic development among the partners themselves as well as between the six countries (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) and the EU. It should be noted that the Riga forum was attended by 660 businessmen from 41 countries.
European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn expressed his view of this cooperation via the following formula: “Stop talking and start working.” As a result, the mentality of a “recipient” should turn into that of a “successful country.”
According to Hahn’s statement for the press, this approach will be promoted through 200 million euros-worth EU project involving grants to small businesses in the three countries which have signed the Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreements. The EU commissioner clarified that the grants would be provided on a “competitive basis,” depending on the submissions’ virtues. According to him, this project could pave the way for investments worth at least 2 billion euros to come to small businesses in these three countries.
Hahn also joked that the EU had as many small businesses as it had unemployed citizens, both numbers standing at about 23 million.
Meanwhile, president of the Employers’ Confederation of Latvia, vice president of BUSINESSEUROPE Vitalijs Gavrilovs drew attention to the fact that the Eastern Partnership had been failing to use its potential to the full extent. According to him, it is because this initiative is seen primarily as a way to spread values and standards of the EU, rather than as an instrument of political and economic integration.
In addition, he stressed the importance of maintaining the dialog between private businesses and the public in the Eastern Partnership countries. Clearly, Gavrilovs meant responsible businesses and not the oligarchs. He also stressed the need for reforms, establishing the rule of law, and strengthening social institutions.
Director General of BUSINESSEUROPE Markus J. Beyrer also stressed the need for reforms and establishing the rule of law, these being necessary conditions for getting investments flow into a country. According to him, the EU needs to better use the tools of the Eastern Partnership and use individual approach with each of the six partner countries.
Some members of the Political and Economic Prospects of the Eastern Partnership panel cited saying “money loves silence.” Minister of Economic Affairs of the Republic of Latvia Dana Reizniece-Ozola responded with a remark that money, including investments, needs clear rules as well.
By the way, this panel included representatives of Georgia, Belarus, Germany, and the European Commission, but not Ukraine. This absence looked surprising for a country that claimed the leading role in the Eastern Partnership.
Earlier, Latvian President Andris Berzins, who is the sponsor of the business forum, addressed its participants. He noted that his country was ready to share its experience of entering the EU market, which was not easy, and we should say that this experience would be truly useful for our country. Interestingly, the president’s presentation cited the fact that Latvia was becoming an exporter of education services as well. Numbers of foreign students are increasing by the year in that country. We also need to pay attention to Berzins’s words about the need for the Eastern Partnership countries to enter the market of Central Asia. Meanwhile, our Cabinet seems to have unjustifiably ignored this direction. One of Ukrainian ambassadors in South-East Asia told us that Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk talked about the European direction during a conference held in Kyiv on April 28 in the presence of many Asian diplomats, but made no mention at all of South-East Asia, a highly promising region.
Executive director of the German Business Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations Professor Rainer Lindner also noted that the EU had to focus on an individual approach when building cooperation with the countries of the Eastern Partnership. He drew attention to the fact that the war in Ukraine was a big challenge for foreign companies. According to him, 30 percent of German companies have left Ukraine due to it. “Without a solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, we will not get far,” he stressed.
Lindner’s proposal on the development of the Eastern Partnership calls for each partner country to create a 10-people-strong group who will meet on a regular basis with the European Commission and report on business expectations and existing issues.
President of the Association of Employers of Georgia Elguja Meladze believes that the very first step on the EU’s part should be the abolition of the visa regime. According to him, the abolition of Turkish visas for Georgians has led to a surge of trade between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the Latvian economy minister’s recipe includes technical aid for the Eastern Partnership countries, structural reforms and dialog between the business community and the public.
Unfortunately, due to Ukraine being not represented at the forum, we do not know what is our government’s view of it all. In other words, it is unclear how it intends to use this initiative for the benefit of the country, its citizens, and businesses. Pressing on with demands, like asking for a membership perspective or visa-free travel regime, when the necessary conditions are still not met, is a manifestation of careless, if not childish approach to the matter.