Avoiding a new iron curtain

As European leaders travel to Prague for tomorrow’s Eastern Partnership summit, the Eastern neighbourhood states are experiencing the worst political, security and economic crisis they have faced since their independence in 1991

As the leaders of the ‘grey zone’
between Russia and the EU
embark for a summit with the EU in Prague,
attention is focusing on whether the EU should be meeting unsavoury figures
like Belarus
President Lukashenko. But there is a critical issue being overlooked – the EU’s
influence is evaporating in its own back yard, as the Eastern neighbourhood
bounces from crisis to emergency and descends into the worst political,
security and economic turmoil the region has seen since the end of the Cold

The EU will formally launch its
Eastern Partnership strategy at tommorw’s summit in Prague to accompany its existing European
Neighbourhood Policy. The summit comes at a bad time. The EU and its
neighbourhood are consumed by the economic crisis and a growing shadow of
mutual distrust and fatigue cloud the relationship. Many EU leaders sniff at the
perspective of sharing a platform with some of the not-so-democratic leaders of
the East. But such feelings miss the point. If Moldova
was like Estonia and Ukraine like Poland, there would be no need for
an Eastern partnership.

EU relations with its neighbours
have achieved much since the launch of the European neighbourhood policy in
2003. Now, all of EU’s Eastern neighbours, except Belarus,
trade more with the EU than with Russia. This was unthinkable a
decade ago. Despite such economic trends, the EU is loosing political relevance
in the East. Throughout the last years the EU has not managed to prevent the
region from collapsing deeper into growing authoritarianism and instability.

Under the Eastern partnership
policy, the EU pledges to help build “Western-type public institutions”
and to remodel the Eastern economies through comprehensive free trade
agreements. But EU soft power is slow power, and long-term visions are easily be
thrown aback by short-term crises. Wars, energy cut-offs or fake elections do
not let EU’s efforts in the region to take root. But the EU is short of action
partly because many EU member states are not convinced the EU should have a
substantial policy at all, or are not willing to support it.

Crises in the Eastern neighbourhood
– from the August war in Georgia, the January 2009 gas dispute in Ukraine and
the post-electoral violence in Moldova – have all left EU’s neighbours with
fewer friends inside the EU at the worst possible time. Why should Europe care about the Eastern neighbourhood and offer its
immediate assistance?

Economic, security and political
crises in the region directly affect European interests. The EU is simply
too interdependent with its neighbours to allow itself to ignore them. Recent
crises in the neighbourhood put strain on internal EU solidarity and relations
with Russia.
They also affect the EU economy. Until recently, European companies benefited
from huge positive trade balances with all Eastern neighbourhood countries
(except oil-exporting Azerbaijan).
In security terms, any talk of a new European security architecture and
improved security cooperation with Russia can be disrupted by crises in
the Eastern neighbourhood. For the EU it is easier and cheaper to invest
diplomatic and economic support to states in crisis before their fragile
state-building efforts come to a halt.

To avoid a less secure Europe, the EU has to complement its long-term agenda
with shorter term policy action in the Eastern neighbourhood. Romantic summitry
is not enough to push for an effective policy. The EU has to come with much
more concrete offers to its neighbours and stop pretending as if the only
driver of EU policy is its attractiveness. European neighbourhood policy is not
philanthropy but serves a clear set of European security, economic and
political interests.

To achieve its objectives the EU has
to make attractive offers, and then use stricter conditionality. As a follow up
to the Eastern Partnership summit it should initiate lower-level meetings of
ministers of interior to discuss migration, visas and counter-terrorism. The
future European Commission should also have a separate commissioner for the
neighbourhood. The EU should also seek to integrate Ukraine
and Moldova
into the European energy market. And the EU should be much more involved in
democracy building, as the slide into authoritarianism is at the core of many
crises in the region.    

The Eastern neighbourhood needs
immediate and basic assistance to curb its crises. With its policy focused
almost entirely on long-term engagement, the EU is in danger of not only
returning to a divided Europe, but of
instability spilling over the EU border as its neighbours crumble. And like the
US and Mexico, growing
gaps in living standards, in good governance and the rule of law will
inevitably flow across borders.


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


ECFR Alumni · Director, Wider Europe programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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