Some eight years since its launch, the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) continues to offer up a mixed bag of results, including both achievements and failures.
Conflicting interests and fluctuating tones in political dialogue between Brussels and the respective capitals of the associate eastern partners reveal a much more complex dynamic that anybody predicted. It is fair to say that the EaP has managed to provide tangible value to the most committed members, such as visa-free travel and trade benefits to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, three countries which are proud of their Association Agreement (AA) with the EU. Three other EaP states — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus — remain undecided as to whether or not the EaP is in their best interests, since the benefits of association are outweighed by certain obligations that their ruling elites do not always find palatable.
Designed to create a ring of friendly states around EU, the EaP has ended up being perceived as a ‘ring of fire’ which reveals the multiple flaws and ambiguities of the original concept. Strategic resolve to transform the EU’s eastern neighbours is not as strong as it once was, while an assertive Russia flexes its muscles.
Predicting the EaP’s fortunes in 2018 needs a balanced and fair evaluation of what it has accomplished so far during a turbulent eight years dealing with complicated partners. Differing in almost every aspect — size, ambitions, culture, expectations – EaP members have often appeared to have little in common except the broken state of their social and economic institutions.
Identifying the best way forward for EaP is no simple task and will take careful negotiation. What everyone can agree on however is that it needs a serious overhaul and strategic rebalancing. Hence EU High Representative Federica Mogherini launching ‘Eastern Partnership — 20 deliverables for 2020’, a programme endorsed in June 2017 by the EaP’s ministerial council.
There is a growing feeling that the AA is less relevant than the populations of member states expected. It is not difficult to see the striking clash of views between EU bodies and EaP governments, revealing a serious lack of mutual understanding. EaP states are expected to act as ‘accession countries’, restricted from accessing EU structural funds and other development money which could greatly improve their economic resilience. In other words, EaP citizens have yet to see the benefits of membership.
Criticism of EU decisions must also be considered when mapping out the strategic disconnect between the two sides. The EU is blamed for not dealing with insecurities faced by its neighbours, who lack the most powerful incentive to change their ways (EU membership). Funds allocated to the EaP are insufficient to generate significant change. In response, the EU has a tendency to silence its critics and move on. For instance, Mogherini did not even mention the EaP at the latest meeting of EU ambassadors in August. With a few exceptions (Poland, Sweden, Romania, the Baltics), the EU is currently fighting on so many fronts that it lacks the vision to see the region as a vital part of its existence against the backdrop of disengaging EU members, institutional fatigue and fear of antagonising Russia.
Instead of aiming to boost reforms and transforming its own backyard, as was previously the case, the EU now tends to be focused more on ensuring stability and resilience rather than exporting European values and democracy. In practice, this means that the EU is no longer banking on the eventual integration of unwilling or hesitant partners, instead letting them pick and choose only the policies and benefits their political elites can accept. While it might be possible in some circles to sell this approach as realpolitik, many others will see this change in approach as an implicit recognition of the EU failing to live up to its earlier commitments, tacit acceptance of the fatigue and growing influence of other regional actors in Eastern Europe, and as such detrimental to the earlier concept of joint-ownership of the Association Agreement.
Such criticism is rebuffed by those who fear that there is no legitimacy in offering more to the EaP until results have been delivered and existing commitments met. Meantime affluent political forces veto key reforms at home, while the vested interests of ‘official’ oligarchs, opaque bureaucracies, and populist ‘haters’ extract their rents in the troubled waters of poorly functioning state apparatus. State capture is overwhelming, as revealed by the TI Perception Index which underlines that capture of political decision-making is one of the most pervasive and widespread forms of political corruption in several EaP states.
The entire region seems to provide a perfect example of elites undermining their chance to be credible, being hijacked by vested interests, fraud and corruption. On the flipside, affluent people have achieved outstanding positions in controlling key-state institutions and the judiciary, which raise justified accusations of state capture from a weak, divided and often co-opted guild of opposition forces. Societies are split between those who see the West as a desired future, capable of providing secure welfare, protection and serving as a role-model, and those who oppose it. Ambiguities and economic decline make affluent elites seek full control of the state’s core institutions, meaning that divisions grow stronger and accountability falls. Then there is Russia, always keen to invest in corrupt elites in the EaP in order to prevent further expansion of the EU and the democratic change it brings.
Domestic demand for change varies throughout EaP countries, as does the probability that societal empowerment, economic diversification or negotiated transition could work to stir social progress. For example, economic assistance programmes may create opportunities for economic diversification but may also empower domestic actors who favour the status quo. Membership of existing clientelist networks prevents elites from seeing the benefit of adapting their markets and political institutions to EU standards.
Instead, they view greater transparency and accountability as hindering their opportunities for rent-seeking and threaten their power and wealth. Ruling elites are therefore opportunistic, multi-layered, resistant to change, and keener to guard the status quo than promote reforms. Even if consistently applied, EU incentives beyond accession conditionality tend to target only specific policy change, for example the introduction of anti-corruption laws, or signing a readmission agreement. So far, they do not seem to have made any kind of systematic impact. Business elites co-own state authorities and often became the real holders of the state apparatus. Illiberal models of governance prove to be irresistible to those in power, who advocate stability instead of reform.
One of the greatest illusions is that EaP has managed to provide ordinary people is that the association could replicate the integration of the Central European States into the EU. If those countries were able to break with the legacies of their past, restore market economies and democracy, then why not use the same model to replicate a proven success?
Alas the assumption that success can be replicated is appealing, but unrealistic. The illusion of an EU enlargement-light was so charming that many ignored essential differences. First and foremost, reformists in CEE were sent clear signals post-1989 that they had a clear mandate to reunite their countries with the West, and the public demanded this through relatively well-structured civil societies. In turn, the EU’s door was wide open. Political elites had little room for manoeuvre.
Most of the Eastern Partnership countries on the other hand remain divided or confused on the issue of their relationship with the EU. That there is no longer any carrot of membership being dangled to the EaP does not help, the EU itself being split on the issue of further enlargement.
In contrast, Russia remains keen to invest massive resources into maintaining its media holdings across the EaP states, as well as into clienteles of political groups and corrupted elites in order to prevent further expansion of the EU. To a large extent, populations at large remain unfamiliar with the EU, while alternative narratives generated by the Russian media dominate their markets, instilling what could be termed hatred against the West.
Another illusion is provided by the frequent claims of the EaP states that receiving a roadmap for EU membership would help clear up existing ambiguities, as if people in EaP states were leaving their homes in droves because of a lack of a formal promises of EU enlargement. No, they are leaving for far more mundane reasons: low wages, injustice, an unstable business environment, political clientelism, corruption. In other words, incomplete domestic transitions.
By turns, the political and economic elites do not see closer relations with the EU as sufficient reward for the cost of introducing changes in return. Countless shades of grey connect self-serving elites with affluent oligarchs. Corruption thwarts delivery of infrastructure projects and public services, while public distrust in ruling parties is at record levels. Douglas North sees the power of personal networks uniting business and political leaders as the main ingredient for state capture throughout the region.
We also need to consider the fact that the EU habitually thinks of itself as a standard-spreading soft power, and not as a hard geopolitical player. Overlooking its geopolitical clout in its relationship with the countries of Eastern Europe is not an effective policy. There is a growing fear that EU resolve to back up its eastern partners is wavering, while Russian networks of influence are far stronger. The new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy states that “for the EU, managing relations with Russia represents a key strategic challenge.”
ironically, Russia sees the EU as a serious geopolitical rival and has stood firmly against closer cooperation and integration of the EaP. Often, small states seem only crude playthings in the geopolitical games of real ‘sovereign states’. It has required huge efforts for the EU to avoid any clear reference to the geopolitical aims of the EaP. For years, the EU has tried to make sure its policies are not taken as anti-Russian, expecting Moscow to cooperate in a so-called ‘common neighbourhood’ through win-win interaction, based on shared values of democracy, peace and welfare. Predictably, this sort of thing has only exacerbated Moscow fears. Spheres of influence and conservative values have been the response from a semi-authoritarian Russia against EU integration, charting defensive lines, bunkers, frozen conflicts, frontlines and barricades, instead of common ground and cooperation.
Realising that CEE is being lost to both NATO and the EU, Russia is committed to defending the region of its Commonwealth of Independent States, as its last bastion of entitlement.
The EU has acted differently towards EaP members in order to reward progress and punish backsliding. Moldovans have been able to travel visa-free to the EU since April 2014, while Ukraine and Georgia had to wait three additional years. According to the EaP Index, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are the leaders in legal convergence with the EU, while the remaining three countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus) have implemented only limited reforms. The most striking sign of decline is the rising gap between plans for reform and actual results, growing political instability at home, rising external insecurities and foreign military threats, as well as the growing role of affluent strongmen, in or outside dominant coalitions. All of this makes the original assumption that EaP states will be able to become a ‘well governed ring of friends around EU’ extremely optimistic.
Due to the fragility of existing political arrangements the EU may raise the issue of sustainability in a number of problematic areas where reforms have stagnated: selective justice, corruption, non-discrimination. This requires constant monitoring from the EU or even a kind of renewal of its assessment mechanisms. So far, however, visa liberalisation has been a powerful incentives in pushing for real reform: document security, migration and border management, ensuring respect for human rights and equality of opportunity for all.
The 2017 Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels could be a rare chance to rethink current policies.
The starting point is to continue to expand institutional integration through resilient cooperation with partners and associated members. Large scale, systemic corruption needs to be rooted out by seizing assets within the EU. Fraudsters and those who facilitate the operation of the 20 billion US dollar Russian Laundromat need to be prosecuted. Right now, there is little of serious effort to seize the of criminal groups residing in the EU (and non-EU offshore jurisdictions), and it is this sort of inaction which suggests the tacit acceptance of moving stolen fortunes abroad, using small states as transit hubs. Calling for global resilience, we should expect the EU to show zero tolerance towards corrupt international gangs and their affiliates, restoring confidence in common goals.
Boosting trade and foreign investment would help too. The EU is the largest market for Moldova (63 per cent), Ukraine (40 per cent) and Georgia (32.6 per cent). We need to see further steps taken towards unlocking new instruments for creating economic incentives for global trade, innovation, and adaptation of EaP economies to the technical standards and sophistication of the richest market on earth. So far, large parts of the EaP economy have remained dangerously isolated from the EU, such as banking, insurance, corporate management of the state and private business, encouraging corruption.
So long as these key institutions remain poorly managed and almost entirely unprotected, they will continue to poison both domestic politics and the business environment. Both Ukraine and Moldova serve as warnings of what happens when large scale corruption is not prevented, or when public sector reform is placed in the hands of those who would prefer to change nothing. State consolidation and asset recovery efforts in both countries demand urgent cleansing of the political class, and the de-offshorisation of the economy.
The EU’s communication effort should be upgraded and refocused on winning the hearts and minds of the ordinary citizens in all Eastern Partnership countries. The EU needs to be careful not be seen as elitist, and must respect its founding principles of keeping the door open to future members, based on conditional accession, but also make sure it can keep the restraints on populist politicians. It needs to stop issuing ambiguous statements that undermine hope and confidence, and serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of the Kremlin’s media networks. The EU must reaffirm its strategic initiative on the future aims of the Union. That way the EaP states can learn how to deal with their complex surroundings – still in a grey area – but in effective partnership with the EU.
The world has changed so much over the last year and a half that it would be a mistake to pretend the same did not apply to the countries of the EaP. In outlining a new, credible political vision the EU can make its Eastern Partnership relevant again. Issuing only ambiguous statements that can’t be backed up with real, robust support would be counterproductive. The EU needs to say less, but mean what it says.
The idea of managing and muddling through is not a captivating political slogan, and rarely captures hearts or win elections. But it is just this type of low-key policy that has proven to be the best way of bridging troubled waters. To under promise but over deliver is a good approach for both the EU and its eastern partners.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.