EU unity and divisions on the East

The EU must take a serious took at the strategy it employs to its East – the disunity on how to deal with Russia and the Eastern Neighbourhood is paralysing

This piece first appeared in the EUObserver.

It is almost trivial to see
the EU divided: on Kosovo, the Perejil island crisis, or the Iraq war. But
EU disunity has been most systematic and paralysing when it came to EU policies
on Russia
and the Eastern neighbourhood, as this power audit
showed. Every time a crisis erupted in the eastern neighbourhood the EU was
often incapacitated because of two factors.

First, many EU member states
hesitated to act assertively in the Eastern neighbourhood for fear of
irritating Russia.
For many EU states good relations with Russia
are more important than developments in Ukraine,
Georgia or Moldova. This
often forced the EU to act at the lowest common denominator. Whenever it
could, the EU shunned meaningful action.

EU member states diverged
hugely in the interpretation of events and, consequently, in possible
responses. As one EU official once told me about a president from the Eastern Neighbourhood “you can’t save Y from his once stupidity”. This entirely misses
the point: the EU had to get engage in the Balkans not because it liked Hashim
Thachi or Slobodan Milosevic, but because Balkan realities were threatening
European interests and values. The same goes for the Eastern Neighbourhood.
The EU might not like Aliev, Lukashenko, Sargsyan, Youshchenko,
Saakashvili and Voronin, but that is precisely the reason why it has to get more
engaged. And that is precisely the reason why the Eastern partnership is
being launched. If Moldova
was like Estonia and Ukraine was like Poland, there would be no need for
an Eastern partnership.

Mediation as a substitute for policy

EU divisions have been visible
across every single crisis in the region. EU member states interpretations of
the war in Georgia
and possible responses diverged hugely. Some blamed Saakashvili, others blamed Russia. The
January 2009 gas Russia-Ukraine gas crisis was perhaps even more divisive. Some
blamed Ukraine, others
blamed Russia.

In such cases the by default EU
reaction is to offer mediation and monitoring (gas monitors in Ukraine and the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia). But
mediation and observation, however useful, is hardly a policy. Mediation can
diffuse crises, but can rarely solve them; observation can inform policy, but
does not amount to a policy. Norway
is a respected international mediator, but I doubt the EU wants to be a big
neutral “Norway”
always mediating in the eastern neighbourhood. Its stakes in the region are
much higher.

United on strategy…

The recent crisis in Moldova
was perhaps a bit different. On Moldova EU seems more united than almost ever
before. Most EU states (except Romania)
had a rather similar interpretation of events – condemnation of violent acts by
the protesters, but also of the violent crackdown by the government against
opposition, media and NGOs. And EU reactions have not been constrained by fears
of irritating Russia.
The EU Special Representative was in Moldova from practically the first
day of the crisis. There was a flood of statements and phone calls from Solana,
the Czech presidency, the French-Czech-Swedish Presidency trio, the European
commission and some EU member states, including France,
Poland and Lithuania. Then
two weeks after the crisis the Czech PM Mirek Topolanek and then Javier Solana
visited Moldova
(today). Though the problem partly was that EU statements and phone calls
mostly came two days later than they should have (when most abuses had been
commited and therefore could not be prevented).

(The story with Solana is a telling
one. The last and only time the High Representative for CFSP had been to Moldova was in
2001 (besides a previous trip as NATO Sec Gen). For years Moldova
practically begged the EU for a high-level, ie Solana, involvement in conflict
settlement in Transnistria to match Putin/Medvedev’s hands on approach to the
issue. It never worked. The country had to make it to the edge of the abyss of
authoritarianism in order to get Solana to Chisinau. Of course crises forced
the EU into action, but still the irony if unfortunate. Bad behaviour seems to
pay off).

The EU has not feared to intervene
in Moldova even if this
would irritate Russia
(which offered president Voronin riot-control gear, many statements of
political support and promises of a bail-out should relations with the EU sour
as a result of the crackdown). EU intervention in Moldova was judged on its own

… divided on tactics

At the same time, the EU is still
disunited on the tactics of an EU response. Should the EU use coercion and
pressure or reinforcement through rewards? Should it put pressure on Voronin,
threat to withhold assistance, play tough and risk a Moldovan realignment with Russia? Or
should it deal with Moldova
through engagement – promise more (a new agreement with the EU, financial
assistance to help with the economic crisis and maybe a push on conflict settlement
in Transnistria) and “buy” a reversal of Moldova’s authoritarianism?

This intra-EU dilemma is not solved.
Some states (among them Romania
and a few others) tend to bend on the more coercive side; others seem to be on
the engagement side. Perhaps the end result will be a combination of both, as a
policy brief on Moldova just
published by CEPS suggests. And perhaps none of these strategies on its own
will work. A policy mix of conditionality and rewards will be needed. The
difficult question is what are the right proportions for such a policy

Divisions on tactics are not
uncommon on other foreign policy dossiers as well – from Russia to Iran
and China.
But still, this is a sign that EU policy on Moldova
might be more emancipated from the shadow of Russia
than on most other issues in the Eastern neighbourhood (a similar policy seems
to emerge on Belarus).
The EU is deciding what to do with Moldova
on its own merits and whether this irritates Russia or not has been a relatively
minor concern. Perhaps this is a sign of a “Moldova-first” approach replacing
the “Russia-first” approach to the country.

PS: This does not fit into the
text,but as Obama presses the reset button on Russia, EU Obs launches a new blog
on the east: Belarus Reloaded.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished policy fellow

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