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Rethinking Relationships in Europe’s East

A Eurasianet partner post from FRIDE

A thorough review of the European Union’s (EU) approach towards its neighbourhood should be a top priority of the new EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and European Commissioner for the neighbourhood, Johannes Hahn. EU neighbourhood policies have produced few results in the tumultuous South (See FRIDE commentary no. 17 – Rethinking Relationships to Europe’s South), and have been derailed both by Russia’s assertiveness and very uneven local commitment in the East.

A new EU approach to the East (perhaps via a renewed Eastern Partnership – EaP) should be more flexible, potentially broader in the number of countries it includes, but especially customise bilateral ties. It will also need to focus on curtailing Russian influence; supporting societies seeking increased ties with Europe; pursuing relations with less interested neighbours (quickly scaling engagement up or down in response to their reform performance); and substantially upgrading EU member-state involvement in shaping and supporting Brussels-formulated policies.

The EU has sought to avoid geo-political competition with Russia over their shared neighbours, but has been naïve in thinking that Russia would accept a democratic turnaround in Ukraine including a pro-EU orientation. After Russian actions, such as annexing Crimea, establishing and supporting a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine, and embarking on a propaganda war of disinformation (including about the downing of flight MH17), the EU needs to recognise that it is facing geo-political competition to the East.

In this sense not only is the EU’s relationship with Eastern neighbours at stake, but also the Union’s security is threatened by Russian actions. Any EU policy with neighbours in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and even Central Asia should be ready for an action-reaction cycle. Russia will seek to lock neighbours into its perceived sphere of influence – via Moscow-led initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union – using political means by offering an authoritarian model as an alternative to democracy; by economic means through embargoes and boycotts; and by military means.

The major success of the EaP has been concluding Association Agreements (AA) with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But the challenges remain enormous. In the short term Ukraine is on the verge of economic collapse while the fight over the Donbass region continues. The future of Ukraine will be decisive for Europe’s partnership ambitions with eastern neighbours. Moldova’s elections at the end of November could result in a new Communist government that might drag its feet on AA implementation. The relatively inexperienced Georgian government will need to process indictments against former government officials transparently and democratically, while further improving judicial reform. All three countries will need substantial EU support on economic and democratic reforms.

Next to stronger engagement with Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian societies, the EU should also open up the possibility of eventual membership to these countries to encourage them on their reform path. In the meantime all three will remain affected by protracted conflicts (Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine). Russia plays a direct role in each of these conflicts and will not give up these areas of influence. The EU can do little besides helping to develop the three states so that they become more attractive to the lost territories, while also continuing security assistance through its ongoing Common Security and Defence Policy missions in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The EU should not give up on the other three Eastern European countries that have chosen not to associate with the EU – though for different reasons. Belarus remains highly authoritarian, but will look for EU cooperation as leverage against Moscow’s domination. The EU should involve Belarussian civil society where possible and keep hammering on human rights and democracy until better times arrive. Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for its security (especially due to the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh) and for its economic survival. Still Yerevan remains interested in implementing some political and economic reforms, and aligning with the EU in agreements that are less comprehensive than Association Agreements.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has become highly problematic. Baku thinks that the combination of energy deliveries to Europe (that account for a very small percentage of overall EU consumption) and Europe’s cautious response to Russian aggression in Ukraine can let it get away with almost anything. Having gotten rid of opposition parties and silenced free media, the regime is now targeting non-governmental organisations and think tanks that receive funding from abroad. The EU will need to increasingly see Azerbaijan for what it is: an authoritarian regime that requires a tougher approach from Brussels and EU member states.

Most essentially, EU efforts in the East will need to be strongly backed by its 28 member-states, especially when it comes to confronting Russia, or supporting EU security policies in the Eastern neighbourhood. The EU’s clout in this region is minimal without firm backing from the larger member states especially, with robust support from smaller member states on particular aspects. For example, Poland and Sweden have led the way on developing the EaP. Now others, including Germany, the UK and France, will also have to coordinate and step up their efforts to give political weight to any future EU approach to the East.

The EU will need a more flexible approach to the East that is bilaterally customised. Such an approach could be placed under a broader umbrella for the EU’s relationship with the six current EaP countries, Russia and Turkey on some aspects, and even the Central Asian countries (for which the EU currently has a separate strategy that will also be reviewed early next year). Such an approach should not seek to foster regional cooperation – with Russia countering it – but should address crucial political, economic, democratisation and security issues on a bilateral basis and, where useful, through other ad hoc issue-focused multinational formats. The EU should be prepared for ongoing problematic relations with Russia (including an uncertain future for Russia itself mid- to long-term) and be ready to assist countries that genuinely want to implement democratic reform and build closer ties with the Union.

Jos Boonstra is Head of the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia programme.

A Eurasianet partner post from FRIDE

Rethinking Relationships in Europe’s East

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