The Europe-Russia Blog Series, “EU, Russia, and Ukraine: Managing and Moving Beyond the Stalemate”, disseminates research, analysis and commentary on issues relevant to contemporary EU-Russia and Ukraine relations. Launched in April 2016, the series publishes contributions by members of the Dahrendorf Russia and Ukraine Working Group, as well as guest contributions from academics and practitioners. In this blog post, Julia Langbein discusses how the EU can strengthen its relationship with its Eastern partners without triggering a direct confrontation with Russia.
The 2015 European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Review points towards a shift from an EU-centred/supply-driven approach towards a demand-driven ENP tailored to the needs and priorities set by the partner countries. If implemented, this shift would certainly constitute a welcome policy change. It is a conventional wisdom that the presence of reform-minded domestic actors is a necessary condition for domestic change and for EU strategies to be effective. Put differently, EU strategies aimed at transforming the Eastern neighbourhood must be tailored to the scope of action and the preferences of domestic actors in each of the partner countries, rather than to the scope of the acquis.
That said, the EU is well advised to put greater emphasis on the question of whose (domestic) interests count. A demand-driven policy needs to strike a fine balance between the interests and priorities of domestic elites and societal actors in the partner countries, as they often do not coincide. The EU must not risk losing societal support any further, but it is also clear that the preferences of the ruling elites, including of the oligarchs backing them, cannot be ignored, since domestic change can hardly be pursued against their will. External support should be channelled into those reform areas where change is relatively easy to achieve due to uncontested domestic support. Additionally, the reform process needs to be sequenced, so as to gradually dissipate rents across a larger number of actors. In autocratic countries, it may not be wise to start pushing for the rule of law in the realm of political rights. Instead, the focus could be on the gradual improvement of the governance of economic interactions (which will be difficult enough on its own).
Greater prioritization and the ‘capability-expectations’ gap
The EU and the partner countries’ societies are both likely to benefit from a narrower approach and greater prioritization. Clearly, the outcome is likely to be selective implementation rather than full acquis compliance as foreseen by the Association Agreements, but this is a far more realistic objective for the time being, since the current Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are not so different in their complexity from the agreement a developed market economy like Norway accepted as part of joining the European Economic Area. Greater prioritization will also help to develop alternative modes of integrating the non-associated countries. A narrower approach should not be guided only by the decisions of technocrats. Instead, the selection of reforms to be prioritized under a demand-driven policy needs to be based on a sound analysis of the political and economic resources underpinning the power of domestic elites, as well as of bottom-up societal forces. Last but not least, a narrower approach is also more honest when it comes to the willingness of the EU to support transformation of the neighbourhood countries into open societies, which is not as strong as in the case of candidate countries, due to a lower level of (perceived) political and economic interdependence. Greater prioritization may help manage the ‘capability-expectations’ gap and maintain the EU’s power of attraction.
The questions of whether or not the ENP, as a common policy for the neighbourhood, will or should survive greater prioritization must be answered from a goal-oriented perspective. It may make sense to maintain the ENP, should an umbrella policy be better equipped to use and strengthen those bilateral, regional or global interdependencies that may facilitate the transformation of these countries from rent-seeking social orders into open societies.
Anticipating negative externalities of deeper integration and closer cooperation
Notwithstanding the focus on a demand-driven approach, the EU will continue to pursue its interests by supporting reforms that it thinks will help stabilize the region. Recently, EU policies have instead contributed to destabilizing the region. When the EU started to negotiate Association Agreements with some of the Eastern partners in 2009, the EU apparently did not anticipate that deep integration with the Eastern neighbours would cause Russian aggression to the extent it did. Adopting a demand-driven approach must not lead the EU to ignore potential negative externalities resulting from closer integration and/or cooperation between the EU and the Eastern neighbours.
The quest for a Common Security and Defence Policy dimension to the ENP, which has been articulated by those Eastern neighbours whose statehood has been challenged by Russia, is a case in point. Here, a fine balance must be struck between the need to strengthen the EU presence on the ground and prevent further escalation of conflicts, on the one hand, without triggering a direct confrontation with Russia, on the other hand. The EU should stick to its civil-military approach (the EU-28 are anyway unlikely to agree to a substantial upgrade of the EU’s military capabilities). It should become more active in claiming the role of a peacemaker in the Eastern neighbourhood region, and engage on both sides of conflicts, including Russia-controlled territory. Concrete measures could include fostering a more intense dialogue with civil societies and/or local communities in the secessionist entities of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia and intensifying its support for the implementation of low-level economic and social projects in these entities. All of these steps could strengthen the EU presence on the ground and prevent further escalation of conflicts without triggering a direct confrontation with Russia.
About the Author: Julia Langbein is a Senior Research Fellow at Freie Universität Berlin.