Turning Presence into Power: the EU in its eastern neighbourhood

The EU needs to be more influential in its eastern neighbourhood


As the EU examines how it should deal with the wave of revolutions to its south, it needs to consider the lessons of its involvement in its eastern neighbourhood, where the EU’s considerable presence is not matched by real influence.

In the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, despite the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ over the last decade, authoritarian rulers are consolidating their grip on power – from Armenia to Azerbaijan, Belarus to Ukraine.

The authors of Turning presence into power: lessons from the eastern neighbourhood, Nicu Popescuand Andrew Wilson argue that the failings of the European Neighbourhood Policy (launched in 2003) offer important lessons that the EU needs to learn from.

“The EU has not succeeded in turning this presence into power. In security and democracy terms, it has failed not only to achieve most of its objectives, but also to prevent a deterioration of trends on the ground.”

The authors identify three major reasons for Europe’s failures in the eastern neighbourhood:

  1. Regionally, the neighbourhood states are increasingly authoritarian and semi-authoritarian; the region has seen Putin-style successions and moves to lifetime presidencies. Only Moldova is more democratic than it was five years ago.
  2. Globally, the emergence of a multi-polar world has allowed countries in the eastern neighbourhood to engage in “neo-Titoist” balancing games that plays the EU off against Russia, Turkey, and even China.
  3. Internally, the EU has been distracted with the financial crisis and institutional reforms. Its half-hearted engagement with the eastern neighbourhood has led those states increasingly to view the EU as irrelevant.

To remedy this, the EU should:

  1. Invest in high-visibility and populist policies such as promoting air transport liberalisation and opening access to low-cost airlines, and making it cheaper for students from EaP countries to study in the EU by granting them ‘home student’ status.
  2. Become the voice of EU business in the region through EU Chambers of Commerce that could lobby for reduced corruption and improved standards.
  3. Strengthen relationships with key governmental institutions, including interior ministries, through initiatives such as joint border posts and help with policing.

4.      Build a more transactional relationship with Eastern Europe and engage in ‘tough love’ where necessary. The EU must, for example, be strict about the conditions it demands in exchange for visa free travel: when one country meets these conditions, it could accelerate reforms in others.

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

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