23rd Mar 2018


The EU's half-hearted Ostpolitik

  • Ukrainian children celebrate EU visa-free travel deal earlier the year (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

Driven by a desire to establish closer ties with neighbours that share its ideals, the EU has struck up ambitious association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

These have been landmark developments in the transition of the three post-Soviet countries towards becoming regular European states, aiming at the same political values and economic systems as in the European Union.

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  • Russian soldiers seized Crimea and territory in east Ukraine to block its pro-EU path (Photo: Elizabeth Arrott/VOA)

Even if they have been denied the prospect of membership by the EU, the countries have taken on heavy commitments to reform their administrations and align their rulebooks to facilitate trade and cooperation with the bloc.

This process has been contested by their other big neighbour - Russia - to the point of war and loss of territory. The stakes are thus very high for the three countries, as indeed for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, which are also included in the EU's "Eastern Partnership" programme.

The EU therefore needs to get its Ostpolitik right if it wants to continue its push for closer political, security and economic association with the countries on its eastern borders without aggravating tensions with Russia.

In view of the reticence of key EU member states to move the needle further, combined with the concentration of Kremlin minds on the smooth and credible re-election of president Vladimir Putin and the flawless organisation of the football world cup in 2018, the Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November in Brussels is unlikely to produce or provoke substantial change.

The focus will be on the implementation of existing commitments, not on the extension of new promises.

Stuck in transition

The borderlands are stuck in transition.

The authoritarian regimes in Belarus and Azerbaijan are eager to catch the winds generated by the rise of a more transactional international environment but are held back by their logic of self-preservation and the security conundrum they face in their problematic relationship with Russia.

Ukraine and Moldova have so far become only semi-democratic. Their economic and political reform agendas are advancing on a broad front, but with serious limitations with regard to anti-corruption policies (Ukraine) and the continuing pervasive influence and power of oligarchic interests warranting the description 'state capture' (Moldova).

Even Georgia, which underwent shock therapy during the years of president Mikhail Saakashvili, has recently witnessed a roll-back of press freedom and attempts to delay and derail judicial reform.

Whereas 'Brussels' cannot be blamed for the air of permanent instability imposed by Russia's security threats, the dire economic outlook, the backsliding of respect for democratic principles, fundamental rights and the rule of law of the borderlands, the eastern neighbourhood does constitute one of the most important geopolitical tests for the EU.

How it deals with its neighbouring states will define not just the Union, but also the perception its international partners have of the EU's role on the global stage.

Keenly aware of this challenge, the EU's answer has been to inject a dose of realism and transactionalism into the European Neighbourhood Policy.

In this vein, Armenia has been allowed to negotiate a truncated association agreement after Putin forced it in 2014 to renege on its earlier intentions to establish a deep and comprehensive free trade area with the EU and join the Eurasian Economic Union instead.

Less deep in its trade arrangements, the new "comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement" allows for membership of the customs union with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Azerbaijan and Belarus are hopeful that the third way which has been charted by Yerevan will create an opportunity for their bilateral relations with the EU to develop on a more positive footing.

Blurred vision

Yet the EU has no clear vision of what the end goal of closer association of the Eastern Partnership countries should be. All it knows is that these countries should not become members.

In the absence of a substantial reward for following its prescriptive methods of harmonising legal frameworks and meeting its demands for reform of institutions and economies, the EU is failing to inspire the citizens of neighbouring states, especially those who do not share the Union's values and are led by kleptocrats or autocrats.

The technocratic approach to relations with its neighbours exposes the Union's path dependency and the limits of policy innovation. As a result, the Eastern Partnership remains suspended in animation.

This is even more so since the EU is not a hard security actor. The Eastern Partnership is ill-conceived and badly equipped to deal with an unstable environment and Putin's zero-sum gaming Russia.

Even if crisis response and conflict management fall outside the realm of the Eastern Partnership, a strong nexus with the EU's security and defence policy might have been presumed, but all the EU has been able to do is offer technical assistance in civilian security sector reform.

Inadvertently, new borders have materialised - set by Moscow.

Short-term gains

Whereas short-term political and economic gains may be made through the Eastern Partnership, the breakaway territories that Russia has created are geopolitical widgets intended to destabilise the region and frustrate attempts of the West to expand its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.

At the same time, Russia has consistently undermined the OSCE mediation formats aimed at conflict resolution for the so-called frozen conflicts.

Arguably, the EU's Ostpolitik is nowhere if 'Brussels' and the other capitals of the Union do not get crisis management and peacebuilding right.

If, as the EU claims, the Eastern Partnership summit is not a format for conflict resolution, where else will the security issues that hold the region back be resolved with its active participation?

Steven Blockmans is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think tank based in Brussels, and the author of "Obsolescence of the European Neighbourhood Policy" (CEPS, 2017). The opinions in this article belong to the author

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