When the only tool you have is a hammer, then it is tempting to look for nails. Following the success of the European Union’s eastward expansion in 2004, it was tempting to apply the same approach to other candidate countries. The assumptions were that the public and the elites in each case supported membership, but would need a bit of help in overcoming entrenched interests and pockets of backwardness. Tough but friendly conditionality from the European Union would help apply pressure in the right places.
A hammer can, in the right circumstances, substitute for a screwdriver. You can bang a screw into a piece of wood in a way that serves the broader purpose, even if the result is not up to the highest standards. (I write as an enthusiastic and incompetent DIY-er). So the EU’s conditionality-based approach worked a lot less well with Romania and Bulgaria, but it did work in the end. Most people would agree that too little was done, particularly on organised crime and grand corruption in Bulgaria, and on the criminal-justice system in Romania. Most people would agree, though, that even being among the poorest and worst-run countries in the European Union, membership is better than the alternative, for them - and for the Union.
But using a hammer when you need a spanner is a mistake. And that is what the EU is increasingly doing with the countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The public may (dimly and sceptically in some cases) like the idea of European integration. But in most of the capitals (Chisinau is the main exception, Tbilisi a partial and possible one) the people in charge do not yearn for their countries to be part of the European family. Their politicians do not want to become commissioners or MEPs. What they want is to stay in power and get rich (or even richer).
This is the fundamental flaw with the Eastern Partnership: it assumes that partnership countries are essentially like the previous membership cohort, just a bit poorer, more disadvantaged and farther away. The much-cited lack of appetite for expansion within the EU is a problem too, but a secondary one. If the EaP countries were well-run, prosperous and yearning to join Europe, the other worries would disappear. It is easy to forget how bizarre the idea of Polish or Baltic membership once seemed to some West Europeans, in the days of exotic and sinister populist politicians, now long forgotten (remember Stanisław Tymiński, Jüri Toomepuu and Joachim Siegerist? No, I thought not).
The EaP offers an attractive bundle of measures. Market access for goods and services; regulatory norms that help instil good government, EU-style; and engagement for bureaucrats and politicians who want to rub shoulders, exchange ideas and network with their EU counterparts. This is, in effect, what the association agreements, being considered in the run-up to the Vilnius summit in November, offer.
That is where the second argument for EaP comes in: geopolitics. Although in an ideal world, policy-makers in Brussels would like the best, they also want to avoid the worst: that the EaP countries fall back into Russia’s orbit. (In the case of Belarus, the operative verb would be “stay” rather than “fall”). The geopolitical agenda involves more carrots than sticks. Russia is able to offer its own incentives. Some reflect the least attractive aspects of post-Soviet political culture: secret-police co-operation against dissidents, cheap gas, lucrative personal opportunities in energy trading and so on. Russia has offered $10 billion to the Ukrainian leadership in recent weeks if it will shun the association agreement that Brussels is offering.
But it would be a mistake to ignore other aspects of what Russia offers which are genuinely and widely popular. These include: visa-free travel to Russia (important for those with family ties); relatively open access to the labour market; cheap education (free of charge for Belarusians); and access to the huge Russian market for goods and services. The EU cannot easily compete with these in either form or content. For countries, enterprises and individuals without the language skills and cultural familiarity needed for doing business in the EU, and facing the considerable bureaucratic and financial hurdles that it places in their path, the “eastern option” is highly attractive.
The EU’s negotiating stance works best with countries that want to implement the acquis, but face short-term transitional difficulties (because of lobbies, lack of institutional capacity, or historical legacies). The EU can help national governments push through short-term painful measures, and sweeten the pill with temporary derogations or extra cash. But when the political will is absent, the EU’s carrots are not tasty, and the sticks do not have the desired effect. The result is that the EU begins to negotiate with itself: the main currency is how far it will drop conditionality on one front in order to achieve progress on another.
The EU risks looking weak on all fronts. It does not have the capacity and will to conduct imperial politics on its eastern borders - the way that America did during the Cold War in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That approach involves doing deals with unpleasant regimes in order to fox or frustrate the other side. The hope is that some crumbs of liberty and justice may get sprinkled along the way, and that in the long term the nasty regimes may mellow. If they do not, the geopolitical gains are still worth the investment.
Nor does the EU have the capacity and will to pursue a values-based policy. That would involve, where necessary, ignoring criminal, autocratic and incompetent regimes and dealing directly with the citizens. Unilateral visa regulation (or the issuance of special EU-approved travel documents) would be one approach; instituting - again unilaterally - a policy in which students from the EaP countries could study free of charge in EU universities would be another. A third would be to support pro-democracy and human-rights groups with the explicit aim of regime change. This last approach was tried, with a striking lack of success, in Belarus. Now the appetite for any consistent values-based approach is vanishingly small.
So the charade rolls on. The EU demands plenty of the EaP countries. It does not put itself in their shoes. Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych may be a bad man, determined to turn his country into a family-owned enterprise. That is sad. But it makes no sense to pretend that he is otherwise. Why is the EU demanding that he dismantle the system that keeps him power, open his economy to painful economic shocks, and let his worst enemy, Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader, out of jail? Having set these conditions, and got empty promises in return, the EU is trying to unwind them. Subplots abound that Germany, perhaps without proper thought, has made Ms Tymoshenko’s release a condition of the association agreement. Poland disagrees: she belongs in prison, if not on the exact charges that put her there. Polish officials want the Association agreement signed with Ukraine, even if Ms. Tymoshenko is still in jail (a stance with which, it seems, she herself agrees).
It is a similar story with Belarus. Aliaksandr Lukashenka dislikes the EU because it has tried to topple him, and despises it because it failed to do so. He has seen at first hand the inconsistency of policy in Brussels, the double standards (Azerbaijan has a worse human-rights record but is treated less harshly) and the failure of some EU countries (Austria is a notable example) to hew to the common line.
But the Belarusian leader is never happy being completely in the Kremlin’s camp. He likes to keep his options open, and that creates an opportunity for the EU. Perhaps (some argue) it is time to offer an olive branch again. If the regime lets out all political prisoners, then at last the Belarusian foreign minister can come to the Vilnius summit. That step would change nothing in Belarus. But it is laudable from a humanitarian point of view and spares the EU the embarrassment of an empty chair in Minsk.
I feel sorry for the Lithuanian diplomats trying to put this charade on stage. They are a highly competent, honest and likeable lot, with far more knowledge of the countries concerned than most of their EU member-state and commission counterparts.1 But if you have been given a hammer, and what you need is a spanner, there is not much you can do: a tap here, and a tap there, and a lot of hoping for the best. The main cause for comfort in the EU’s eastern policy lies not in the Eastern Partnership but in the increasingly coherent line on Russia. If anyone had said 10 years ago that the EU Commission would be destroying Gazprom’s business model, it would have seemed wild fantasy. But that is what is happening - partly because of the efforts of the energy and competition directorates, and partly because of the changing face of the international gas market.2 The fact that the Central European countries and the Baltics, once regarded as political and economic weaklings, are now a more important trading partner for Germany than Russia (even including oil and gas) has fundamentally shifted Germany’s approach. So too on a more provisional basis, is Poland’s new role as a close and dependable ally. As the climate changes in Berlin, the effects can be felt in Brussels.
But that is little comfort for the next few months. My forecast is that after months of empty gestures and emptier words, Vilnius will be a fudge in terms of practical outcomes, though a success in terms of diplomatic process. Moldova will be the expected success story; Armenia will be the unexpected one. Belarus will make baby steps and get a token appearance of no lasting importance. Azerbaijan will treat the whole thing with contempt: it knows that oil and gas trump everything else where human rights are concerned. It has masterminded an extraordinary PR offensive in the Council of Europe.3 It expects the EU to be no different.
Georgia is too close to call: Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government combines a rhetorical commitment to European values with occasional vindictiveness towards its political opponents; a blind eye for petty corruption (whose near-elimination was one of the big achievements of the Saakashvili years); and economic illiteracy. Even the most seasoned Georgia-watchers hesitate to predict what state the country will be in by the time of the Vilnius summit. It could have settled its internal political conflicts with an orderly presidential election, or have been consumed by them.
The big question, of course, is Ukraine - larger than all the other countries combined, and less amenable to pressure from either Brussels or Moscow. If its association agreement is not signed, a serious rethink of the whole approach is inescapable. If Ukraine plays along, it would be a pity then to declare victory and allow the EaP charade merely to stumble on in its current format. Europe can do better; its taxpayers and citizens deserve better. As the Reality Check studies by CEPI show, the elites in the region are not representative of the people they govern.4 Despite all the disappointments and frustrations of the past five years, they retain a dogged belief in the desirability (if not the practicability) of EU integration. The deep generational changes in society following the Soviet collapse have weakened the elites’ grip on their people. Political pluralism, free media and the rule of law may be imperfect or absent, but the expectations of the public are sharper and clearer than ever.5
Even if EU membership is off the table for the foreseeable future, a big practical task is to use the association agreements to the full in stoking economic growth in the EaP countries. Success stories - whether stemming from better infrastructure, greater market access, stronger institutional capacity, can still keep the idea of European integration alive as something that brings practical benefits. This message will be all the more powerful if the Russian economy weakens under the impact of lower gas and oil prices. A second area of attention is closer to home. The consolidation of the past wave of EU expansion is still incomplete. For now, the ‘success story’ of Polish, Hungarian, Baltic, Romanian, and Slovak EU membership is not as compelling as it could be. The sense that drifts over the border is of economic dislocation, large-scale migration with the accompanying social stresses, much higher prices and the promise of jam tomorrow, not today. Prosperity in the eastern regions of the ‘new’ member states could play an important supporting role in the three ‘western’ EaP countries.
But the big lesson is to deal with what I described earlier as the “fundamental flaw” in the EaP: the focus on dealing with the self-interested, authoritarian and essentially hostile elites. It is this which snared the EU into exhausting, credibility-sapping diplomatic process, and into hard bargaining over issues that are more symbolic than real. That approach will have reached its natural end with the Vilnius summit. The future of the EaP should be less bureaucratic and less diplomatic. It should focus more on stoking the EU’s soft power in the EaP countries, fostering and highlighting success stories of European integration, whether economic, cultural or social. The more that process advances, the more the prevailing and dispiriting political consensus will erode - both in EU capitals, and in Baku, Chisinau, Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi and Yerevan. That needs new tools and new skills. But nobody said that all we have is a hammer.
1. They also have to deal with an underpowered government, which includes some politicians and parties with disconcertingly close ties to Moscow and with a head of state whose fondness for the limelight is not always matched by her performance in it.