The EU’s sovereign neighbours

How are the EU’s Eastern neighbours different from “accession neighbours”?

The EU has an almost annual ritual of mending its often-criticised policy towards its eastern neighbours – the so-called European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Various upgrades such as the ‘New Ostpolitik’, the ENP Plus, enhanced ENP, Black Sea Synergy and, most recently, the Eastern Partnership have been offered as solutions.

The new upgrades usually seek to make the ENP more attractive, throwing in new goodies for its participants – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But the ENP, no matter how it is tweaked, still remains a pale imitation of enlargement instruments without an accession perspective. This means ENP has no answer to the question: what if the EU’s offer is not the most attractive available?

The model of EU enlargement into Central Europe was straightforward: the countries had to adopt the acquis communautaire, the total body of EU law accumulated thus far. This model left little room for manoeuvre or negotiation, as the relationship was inherently asymmetric. The only thing the Central European countries could negotiate was the pace of the adoption of the acquis.

But unlike the ‘accession neighbours’ of Central Europe or the Western Balkans, the EU’s Eastern neighbours have two other alternatives to the EU: joining the gradually re-consolidating Russian ‘sphere of influence’ or playing a Tito-style game of perpetual manoeuvring between East and West to strengthen their position. They do not have to fully commit to one or the other. The new neighbours can more easily eschew EU conditionality and attendant reforms.

The EU’s Eastern neighbours also have deeply corrupt and often authoritarian elites, whose primary goal is to stay in power. So if EU-inspired reforms endanger this, they will shun them. However, such a strategy can be ultimately self-defeating, because the neighbours do not have the resources and the size to play the ‘sovereignty game’ for too long. It also disregards the fact that for Eastern Europe the ultimate guarantee of their sovereignty is the EU and NATO, not tous azimuth foreign policies. The external pressures on the EU’s Eastern neighbours’ sovereignty are very high, as neither Russia nor the EU really treats them as fully sovereign.

But the EU’s neighbours try to use this difficult external environment to their advantage. They use relations with the EU as an instrument to strengthen their own freedom of action vis-à-vis Russia rather than to modernise. Thus, they do not necessarily seek the ‘straightjacket’ of Europeanisation, but prefer various degrees of ‘multivectoral’ foreign policies; that is, balancing between various centres of power. They all declare themselves ‘bridges’ between East and West. Having played this game, Eastern European governments have discovered that they like it and are actually quite good at it.

As a result, most Eastern European governments want an ENP ‘a la carte’. Unlike the accession countries of the 1990s, they are much more selective of what they take from the EU. Most of them are not interested in importing the whole acquis. Why should they adopt expensive social or environmental laws if they are not going to join the EU? Why should they unbundle energy companies just because Brussels asks them? Azerbaijan is interested in energy cooperation, Georgia wants greater EU support against Russia. But neither wants the EU’s prized offer of Deep Free Trade, which presupposes regulatory alignment with the EU. Mikheil Saakashvili once exclaimed that Georgia does not need ‘a European model, but a Dubai or Singapore model’ of economic development that does not stifle economic growth or impose red-tape on business.

The EU’s Eastern neighbours are of course all different. Moldova and Ukraine frame their domestic and foreign policies as a desire to join the EU. They have fundamentally pro-European elites and masses, and, in public at least, basically accept everything the EU offers, and then ask for more. Despite their formal dislike for the process, the two countries are actually closer to ENP as it exists than towards some kind of ‘ENP a la carte’ model. This makes them similar to potential candidate countries.

But they also reproduce some of the traits of the ‘sovereign neighbours’. Moldova is a bit too authoritarian for comfort, while Ukraine is too arrogant in seeking special treatment from the EU in virtue if its size and geopolitical importance. Both tend to use the implicit threat of reapprochement with Russia to push for greater integration with the EU, but also to get European acquiescence in suspect internal practices such as the harassment of political opponents.

Further down the spectrum is Georgia. Unlike Moldova and Ukraine who try to walk a path between the EU and Russia, Tbilisi’s foreign policy is based on perpetual conflict with Moscow, which it uses to get international attention and support. What the Georgian government wants from the EU is what they think is good for their country, not what the EU wants to offer them. Georgia wants some kind of ‘selective convergence‘ with the EU, not full fledged adoption of the acquis.

All three countries share a number of basic characteristics. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are fundamentally pro-European, but none of their elites are fully committed to Europeanisation as a process of reforms; and they all too often use the threat of Russia to get closer – or squeeze handouts out of – the EU.

At the other end of the spectrum lie Armenia and Belarus. Russia is the cornerstone of their security and economic well-being and they seem firmly embedded in Moscow’s sphere of influence. They widely replicate the ‘sovereign democracy’ model espoused by the Russian political elite.  

But they still use the threat of reapprochement with the EU as a bargaining chip in their dealings with Russia, especially when Moscow’s demands become excessive. For these countries, however, relations with the EU are subordinate to their relations with Russia. Although they flirt with the EU, Russia will remain their real partner.

At the most extreme end of the spectrum sits Azerbaijan, the only country in Eastern Europe that is fully ‘sovereignist’ in its outlook. Its leaders talk about having a ‘sovereign and evolutionary’ model of democracy without lectures on values or intervention in the country’s internal affairs. But Azerbaijan’s capacity to maintain its position rests on its oil reserves, and it is therefore vulnerable to fluctuations in the oil price.

The EU is entering a new game in the neighbourhood (and even in countries like Turkey or Serbia). A reworked model of ENP, or what is effectively enlargement-lite, might work for Moldova and Ukraine, but is unlikely to have much effect elsewhere. Instead, the EU’s ability to shape the future development – and choices — of its other Eastern neighbours will depend on the EU’s capacity to differentiate and play the different ‘sovereignty games’ of its neighbours, which implies being much more responsive to their needs. This means EU has to pursue a policy of radical differentiation between its Eastern neighbours, while being much more short-termist and responsive to their desires, rather than what the EU is ready to offer. Failure to do so will mean continued frustration with the ENP. 

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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