Europe, Headlines | Analysis

EUROPE: EU Looks East, Again

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, May 21 2009 (IPS) - The European Union’s Eastern Partnership, promoting closer cooperation between the EU and former Soviet Republics, has been enthusiastically endorsed in Eastern Europe, ignored in the West, and criticised in Russia.

The Polish-Swedish initiative, approved by an EU summit on May 7 in Prague, aims at giving the supranational organisation an eastern dimension to its policies, but stops short of offering membership prospects to the EU’s eastern European neighbours.

For Poland, the largest of the Eastern European member states, the adoption of the Eastern Partnership represents the first major Eastern European initiative to be embraced by the EU.

Enlargement advocates are aware that previous enlargements have left the EU facing crucial questions of institutional reform, to which one must add the difficulties posed by the present global financial crisis.

Nevertheless, the Eastern dimension will significantly increase the chances of more Eastern European countries joining the EU once its institutional and financial condition is stabilised and if prospective members carry out deep political and economic reforms.

The Partnership’s advocates hope that within a few years Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the formerly staunch Russian ally Belarus will benefit from visa-free movement and, more realistically, a free trade zone for services and agricultural products.

The six former Soviet Republics may also seek closer cooperation in border control, environmental issues and transportation, and the EU says it will boost academic cooperation and send experts to help carry out what it sees as key reforms.

For Eastern European member states the idea is to increase the predictability of its neighbours by luring them into gradually adopting EU policies and integrate into its common market, instead of waiting for the countries to “democratise” by themselves.

Nicu Popescu, analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, says it should not be taken for granted that these countries’ priorities will match those of the EU. “They won’t rush necessarily to democratise, but rather seek financial, political, diplomatic and conflict resolution assistance,” he says.

The initial budget for the initiative, conditional on reforms, is 600 million euros, but the sum will not represent an increased burden on the EU budget as the funds had been previously allocated to the individual countries in the framework of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy.

Individual member states, the European Investment Bank and the European Reconstruction and Development Bank may come up with additional funds.

“The short-term opportunities are not very clear, it’s certainly an upgrade of their relations with the EU, but I expect them to continue to do what they did until now, play between Russia and EU, and try to extract benefits from both,” Popescu told IPS.

The Partnership also represents an attempt to reduce Russia’s influence on Eastern Europe, in contrast with Western Europe’s policy of prioritising ties with Russia.

Moreover, the initiative competes for resources and political support with the French-led Union for the Mediterranean, which promotes cooperation between the EU and non-EU countries in the Mediterranean region.

France, Austria, Britain, Italy and Spain are some of the countries that sent low-level representation to the Prague summit that launched the Partnership, inviting criticism from officials of the Czech rotating EU presidency.

Besides their wishes to minimise tension in the region, Western European states have much larger capital investments in Russia, and thus have more to lose if relations with Russia were to deteriorate.

Russia has raised concerns over what it perceives as a geopolitical act moved by some of the EU’s most Russophobe member states, although its reaction has been far from hostile compared to its vociferous opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) expansion eastwards.

“It’s entirely different in scale; the Partnership is just one of the EU’s processes, whereas NATO accession has clear-cut implications for the security of these states,” says Popescu, who nevertheless acknowledges Russia’s uneasiness about the Partnership.

“Russia has made quite a number of statements obviously directed against it. What happens in the future will depend also on how full of substance the partnership will be, and on what Russia will do to assert its sphere of influence in these countries.”

Russia promotes its own integration policies by investing, aiding, and reaching trade agreements with countries in its neighbourhood.

While Ukraine and Georgia have been more declarative in their EU ambitions, the governments of Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia will see in it a chance to attract support and investments from Brussels while obtaining concessions from Russia by scaring it with the prospect of further integration with the West.

Except in the areas of energy and security policy, the EU says it will assess the six former Soviet Republics on an individual merit basis.

But Ukrainian officials are disappointed to find themselves in the same category as countries like Belarus, for whom the question of eventual EU membership was never posed, and where Russia has been a more privileged partner.

“We are taking part in European affairs not against someone, but to the benefit of our people and economy,” Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said when questioned on the possible geopolitical tensions of joining the Eastern Partnership.

Still, the EU has been criticised by Belarusian dissidents for extending a hand to the regime without demanding free elections.

“Europe is making a mistake by giving Lukashenka a chance without first compelling the regime to hold free elections,” Alyaksandr Kazulin from the Belarusian National Front told the press.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

friedman fables