When hardened analysts suggest the EU should try to re-energize its waning soft power in Eastern Europe by encouraging people there to stop smoking, the image of clutching at straws jumps immediately to mind.
In their new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Nicu Popescu and Andrew Wilson try to get to grips with a serious problem. Since the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy was launched in 2003, trade with the six countries of what is now the Eastern Partnership (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) has ballooned. The EU is the biggest trading partner in the region. Yet, “In security and democracy terms, the EU has failed not only to achieve most of its objectives, but also to prevent a deterioration of trends on the ground. In fact, every country in the region except Moldova is less democratic now than it was five years ago,” the two very experienced observers write.
Popescu and Wilson identify three long-term trends that militate against the EU being able to guide these states in the direction of greater democracy, less corruption, and general Europeanness. First, governments in the region are becoming more authoritarian. Second, the increasing multipolarity of world politics allows them to play the EU off against other powers. Third, the EU’s preoccupation with internal crises and frictions.
On the second point (I take the first and third points as givens), Popescu and Wilson concisely sketch out a situation that is likely only to become more tangled in the future.
Whereas the EU had a quasi-monopoly of influence in Central Europe and the Balkans in the 1990s, it must now compete with Russia, Turkey, Iran and increasingly even China for influence in the eastern neighbourhood. … Meanwhile, American attention to the region is more sporadic than ever. Preoccupied by the rise of China and events in
Afghanistan and Iran, the United States increasingly expects the EU to deal with its own neighbours alone.”
This, they write, allows these countries to play a balancing game – which they compare to the foreign policy of Titoist Yugoslavia – in order to extract the best economic deals at the least cost to local elites, who are not at all enthusiastic about applying EU standards on the rule of law or transparent elections, for instance.
Popescu and Wilson consistently write “the EU” as though it were a unitary body. Perhaps to save space and avoid needless complexity, they don’t touch on issues of which they are better aware than most observers: the divisions between newer and older EU members on relations with eastern neighbors, for instance. Their report presumably was drafted before the Eastern Partnership summit at the end of September, but nothing that took place at summit would have modified their argument, for hardly anything did take place there beyond the press commenting on the absence of the Belarusians.
The EU’s lack of coherence on integration/expansion towards the east will make it all the more difficult to craft more effective policies for the eastern neighbors. Popescu and Wilson perhaps implicitly recognize this problem, because their policy recommendations seem pretty timid, although they call for “high-visibility and even populist policies” that will benefit ordinary citizens more than elites. They recommend, for instance, liberalizing air travel rules, easing visa restrictions, and as mentioned, encouraging anti-smoking campaigns, for whatever reason.
One thing the ECFR report, crucially, does not address is how to sell these policies to voters in the EU itself. Again, this gets into territory more suitable for a book-length study than a brief report, so their reticence is understandable. Nor do they venture into the question of eventual EU membership for the Eastern Partnership countries. Allow me to take a shot: The EU may be the most successful, prosperous, and least rotten international organization ever devised, and the one that has remained truest to its founding principles. What began as an economic partnership metamorphosed into the most effective conflict-resolution organization of modern times as it spread not only wealth, but a spirit of solidarity. Whether these benefits can survive the union’s enlargement, we don’t know, but they surely will not survive its dissolution.