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The Semblance of Partnership. On the Eastern Policy of the European Union - Adam Eberhardt

Any discussion of the prospects for the European Union’s eastern policy should begin with an appraisal of the effectiveness of how this policy has been practised to date and of the changes that have taken place in the EU’s neighbourhood in the last decade. What is the balance sheet of the successes (intended as well as accidental) and failures of the EU’s eastern policy? Does the old Eastern Partnership costume fit the new times? And, finally, are we capable of developing an offer for Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and South Caucasus states that will support their modernisation and place them more firmly within the European integration mechanisms? Regrettably, the answers to these questions will not be particularly optimistic.

A Bureaucratic Project

The Eastern Partnership (EaP), the eastern pillar of the European Neighbourhood Policy, came into being in 2009. It represented a difficult compromise between the divergent interests of the Member States, most of which had by then become perceptibly disenchanted with how the post-Soviet states had been bungling the transformation processes. The union’s initial reluctance to engage in the east to any significant extent had eventually been overcome by Poland and Sweden’s argument about the need to counterbalance the southern dimension, which would be expanding (according to a concept strongly favoured by the then-President of France Nicolas Sarkozy) within the Union for the Mediterranean which at the time was firmly in favour (and has now been forgotten). Furthermore, the Eastern Partnership was meant to camouflage the West’s helplessness in the post-Soviet area, as exposed by the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. A majority of the EU members approved the EaP initiative, largely as proof that the EU had not forgotten the region.

As befitted a bureaucratic project, the partnership was equipped with numerous dialogue mechanisms, with particular focus on multilateral forums. Underlying this design was the worthy (and, as it turned out, unrealistic) aim of strengthening confidence and ties between the different Eastern Neighbourhood states, which, regardless of their common Soviet heritage, differed vastly in the internal dimension as well as in their policies. However, there was no major increase in the funding of eastern policy, and in succeeding years debates on the rules of conditionality (which was being conducted with a view to improving this instrument in order to promote the leaders of democratic transition and to support best projects) failed to produce a breakthrough. Incoming EU funds as often as not served to entrench local corrupt arrangements, thus obstructing the modernisation of these states (one textbook example of this is Moldova).

To avoid confrontation with Russia, the EU’s policy steered clear of strengthening security cooperation with East European states, or regulating frozen conflicts. This caution did not pay off; indeed, it might have even encouraged aggressive actions by the Kremlin. For three years now, there has been a war between Russia and Ukraine, which has already cost well over 10,000 lives. Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea and has in fact occupied a part of the Donets Basin, treating this region as an instrument with which to destabilise Ukraine.

In rejecting geopolitical aspirations, the EU’s eastern policy has banked on an evolutionary expansion of economic and social ties. Its two most important elements are the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) and increased mobility, with an offer of a visa waiver programme thrown in at the 2011 Warsaw summit.

As a symbolic gesture towards the Eastern Partnership states (one which soon proved to have fairly important positive political consequences), the new strategic document intended to replace the Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation was called an Association Agreement. Previously, the term “association” had been treated somewhat flexibly in agreements signed by the EU. On the one hand, the associations established early in the 1990s between the European Communities and Poland and other Central European states were explicitly conducive to full membership. On the other hand, the EU entered into association agreements with non-European partners ineligible for accession such as Jordan, Morocco, and Chile.
 
The offer for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia was an “in-between” plan. While assuming a far-reaching harmonisation of East European and EU legislation, the association agreement did not even go so far as to hint that the implementation of the association provisions could be a step towards future membership of the EU. When the Eastern Partnership was being born, European leaders made a point of indicating in their statements that the use of the term “association” was nothing but a European courtesy and that an eastward enlargement of the EU was out of the question. 

An Accidental Success

Paradoxically, what was meant to be the icing on the cake proved to be the most important thing about the Eastern Partnership. The phrase “association with the EU”, sometimes misleadingly touted by Ukrainian (and Georgian and Moldovan) politicians and the media as “associated membership in the EU”, took on a life of its own. This flagship element of the Eastern Partnership has come to be perceived in Ukraine (after an initially reserved and sceptical reaction among opinion-forming communities) as a chance fulfil the dreams about Ukraine in Europe — and, even more, the dreams of “Europe in Ukraine”. In the public sphere, it has morphed into a promise of putting right the ineffectual, corrupt, oligarch-appropriated state.

There is no denying that much of the credit for promoting this myth goes to Victor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin. It was in the interest of the former to bring Ukraine closer to the EU (in the rhetorical sense), since in doing so he was enlisting the support of a moderately pro-Western electorate and squeezing more concessions out of Russia in a kind of bidding war. Yanukovych’s extolling of the association process, though strictly instrumental, succeeded in stirring hope in the Ukrainians—and panic in the Kremlin. Putin, for his part, though usually inclined to regard the EU bureaucratic machinery with contempt (and to overestimate NATO’s), on this occasion saw Ukraine’s association process as a threat to Russia’s influence in the neighbourhood. The Kremlin’s political and media hysteria and its brutal pressure on Yanukovych did indeed prove successful, but solely in the tactical dimension (for the Ukrainian president indeed decided against signing the association agreement). In the strategic dimension, though, Putin won a Pyrrhic victory. Rather than allow Ukrainian dreams to clash with the painful realities of a bureaucratic project (in which case, the EU offer featuring laborious and costly reforms with no support coming from Brussels would have been compromised) Russia’s brutal pressure actually strengthened the association myth.

Moldova is a case in point. Having signed the association agreement, the Moldovan authorities first reaped the political benefits and then discontinued reforms that would have been prejudicial to the interests of the oligarchs ruling the country. After more than three years of implementing the association agreement, there is nothing to show that it caused a breakthrough in Moldova’s transition. Despite the lifting of the EU visa regime for Moldovans (the juiciest carrot the EU had to offer), disenchantment with European integration has been on the rise. Polls show that supporters of integration with Russia are in the majority (in March, 49% wanted Moldova to join the Eurasian Economic Union while 40% supported closer links with the European Union). Only 13% of Moldovans believe matters are going in the right direction in their country. The government, while paying lip service to the pro-Western option, compromises it by scheming to appropriate the country’s resources. The presidential election was won by a candidate who unequivocally favours a pro-Russian shift. Moldova’s European choice, that years-long “leading light” of the Eastern Partnership, is on a sharp bend in the road.

The War over Ukraine

 When designing new embodiments of the Eastern Partnership, it should be borne in mind that the success or failure of the EU’s eastern policy and indeed the future of the entire of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood will be decided by Ukraine rather than Moldova or Georgia. Ukraine unquestionably has the greatest geopolitical weight and its GDP and population are larger than those of all the remaining EaP states taken together. Nonetheless, for three years now it has had to conduct a war with the regional hegemon. Developments in Ukraine will presumably have a crucial influence on the direction the entire region takes. This could include Russia, much to the Kremlin’s understandable trepidation.

The victory of the Revolution of Dignity that started under EU flags in response to Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement has confirmed both the strength of civil society and its opposition to the appropriation of the state and to autocratic trends. Maidan opened the door a crack for an uneasy modernisation and Europeanisation of the foremost Eastern Partnership state.

The Ukrainians’ success depends first of all on their ability to permanently resist the Russian military aggression; secondly, on their resilience to the Kremlin’s subversive actions designed to destabilise Ukraine so that it becomes a failed—and therefore, submissive—state. Thirdly, it depends on their determination to carry out reforms that, besides being costly socially, run counter to the interests of the still-powerful bureaucratic-oligarchic clique.

These three challenges facing present-day Ukraine should delineate the basic planes of the European Union’s engagement, subject to the full awareness that failure of one of them will lead to an entrenchment of trends prejudicial to the European security — from provoking Russia to step up actions against the global order, to the inflow of weapons from the conflict zone and the pressure of a migration potentially in the millions.

To support the Ukrainian armed forces with shipments of weapons and equipment and the provision of training; to continue the policy of sanctions against Russia to make the war costlier for it, economically and politically; and to exert consistent pressure to limit the Kremlin’s aggressive actions that contravene international law—these are the actions of key importance to contain the Russian aggression. However, attempts to regulate the conflict should steer clear of the temptation to force Ukraine into accepting one-sided concessions based on the Russian construction of the Minsk agreements since, although this approach promises to reduce the intensity of the hostilities in the short term, it would weaken Ukraine strategically and would further the attainment of Russia’s objectives contrary to Western interests. This observation is more applicable to members of the Normandy format (Germany and France) than to the EU as such, yet their position should be coordinated at the community level where decisions on sanctions against Russia are taken.

Partnership 2.0?

Given the scale of the challenges involved in the modernisation of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, the existing mechanisms of EU eastern policy are inadequate. Of course association agreements should be implemented as long-term instruments to bring these countries closer to the EU, but this should be done with the full awareness that these treaties have failed to produce a breakthrough in the access of goods from the countries covered by the programme to the EU market and that their regulatory dimension is of secondary importance in the context of problems such as fighting corruption. Not only has the association process failed to provide hope of a positive breakthrough in the transition process, but now, three years after the Ukrainian Maidan, making it the foundation of the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbours would be a recipe for disappointment. Effective policy requires (besides a well-considered long-term concept) an attractive package suited to the recipients’ expectations, but now that the long-awaited visa-free regime with Ukraine (and earlier, with Moldova and Georgia) has been introduced, the EU’s eastern policy lacks a politically and socially legible project to show the way to rallying the elite to implement reforms and society to make sacrifices.

Of course, the prospect of EU membership would be the most powerful modernisation incentive, but the EU can hardly be expected to offer an accession path to the East European countries which are the most advanced in reforms. This proved impossible eight years ago and since then the European project has found itself in a deep, multi-dimensional crisis, the manifestations of which include the weakening of its economic foundations (the eurozone crisis), waning public confidence (among other things, in the wake of the mass-migration crisis), and political turbulence (including Brexit). 
While this disadvantageous context seriously limits the generosity of the EU’s new offer for the east, it should not preclude the slow integration of selected states into a customs union (as is the case with Turkey); such an arrangement, despite the challenges involved (chiefly to these states’ agriculture) would provide a development stimulus and make EU support available in the event of new trade wars with Russia. From there, the scope of integration with the EU’s internal market would be determined on the same terms as those applicable to the EEA states.

When looking for overlapping areas of desirable and feasible options, the EU’s more pronounced presence in Eastern Neighbourhood states should be focused upon, especially in those with the most advanced transition process, i.e. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova (in accordance with the “more for more” principle) so that their successes encourage Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Resources should be found for expanding the system of exchange of higher education-level students between EU and East European states; this exchange currently takes place chiefly within the Erasmus+ programme.

It should be the EU’s new priority to allocate perceptible resources to the modernisation of broadly construed infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals, public transport), which in EaP countries is usually in a very poor state of repair, particularly in the provinces. So far, the EU has focused on improving interconnectivity between countries in the region and itself; for instance, in 2016, it adopted a decision on the development of the external dimension of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). This should be complemented with an EU strategy to support local communities in the Eastern Partnership states, since this is where the needs are the greatest and where support would be the most visible. An “infrastructure Marshall Plan” of this kind would require, besides the development of workable mechanisms to prevent the embezzlement of EU funds, an information-and-promotion campaign explaining the sources of funding for the different projects so that people in frontline Mariupol, for instance, are aware of an alternative—a road repaired with EU funds, or one ruined by Russian tanks.
 
Cohesion policy is an important source of sustaining pro-European sentiment in Poland and in the other Central European states. By the same token, a fraction of the funds the EU allocates every year to keeping Greece in the eurozone would go a long way to preventing a growing feeling in the Eastern Neighbourhood countries that they have been cast off by the EU.

Overcoming the profound challenges which Eastern Europe is struggling with requires a long-term, comprehensive, and bold strategy of EU support. Regrettably, given the multitude and complexity of problems the union itself is grappling with it, can hardly be expected to take active steps in its eastern neighbourhood; indeed, at best it can be expected to make inconsistent attempts to stamp out consecutive fires in the region. As a result, the EU is playing catch-up with the political and social processes underway in the Eastern Partnership states and the partnership itself; a project that once inspired Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians with hope for change is increasingly becoming a symbol of bureaucratic helplessness in this particular era of geopolitical confrontation and social turbulence. 
 
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