The European Union promotes itself as a force for peace, and a organisation of shared values. So how do we, and how much should we, let values guide the foreign policy aspects of the EU?
The Eastern Partnership is interesting in several aspects:
1. It is made up of countries who could join the EU in the future - unlike the Union for the Mediterranean, so the member countries have more of a stake in its operation. Even if EU membership is long delayed or even ruled out, the member countries can probably count on a degree of economic integration and benefit.
2. The Commission could potentially be the top institutional actor on the EU side in this case, rather than the Council, which normally deals with the grander aspects of EU foreign policy. Why? Because a lot of the policy meeting in the Partnership will be with Commissioners from the relevant policy area, whereas meetings with the Council will be much rarer.
3. Russia. The Eastern Partnership is an economic sphere of influence, and Russia fears that it stands to loose a lot of influence in the region. That Belarus did not recognise the breakaway republics in the Caucasus when Russia did suggests that Russia may already be loosing influence, as Minsk tries to balance the EU on one side and Russia on the other.
There will be an Eastern Partnership summit, and the invitations have been sent. And some of the invitees are controversial, especially Belarus, which has been described as the last dictatorship in Europe.
Given the stated values of the EU of democracy and human rights, should Belarus be invited? It's my understanding that Belarus will be involved at a lesser level than the other states, but this still gives Belarus a major boost in relations with Europe - without any real attempt at reform.
However, I am persuaded of the value of engagement - it doesn't mean that we should be soft on Belarus, but a forum where the EU can engage with Belarus can create an environment more favourable to reform. Belarus is a close ally of Russia, and it could easily slip back into being isolated from Europe. It also means that even if we do engage, any process of reform with Belarus will be painfully slow: that Belarus is balancing Russia and Europe shows that it's looking for a political constellation that gives it the most leeway to do what it likes, not that it is starting to see any value in European values. Yet this opening means that, through the Eastern Partnership, some reforms could be achieved.
The EU is all about slow institutional change: it's what it does best. The benefits of Europe can only be shared with the Eastern Partnership states through joint reform and opening up on both sides. This road isn't inevitable, and Belarus could stop at any point along it (as could any of the others), yet some reform is better than no reform, and some influence is better than raging impotently outside.
That is, if the EU plays it's cards right. (And is this more likely if the Commission has the key role? Consistency is an important factor in foreign policy; especially if one actor is playing both sides and looking to exploit any opening it can find...).