The EU made some important achievements in Wider Europe during 2013, which are reflected in the improvement in the overall grade from C+ to B-. Croatia joined the EU on 1 July – the first new member state since 2007 – and the EU-mediated agreement between Kosovo and Serbia was a historic achievement that paved the way for the inclusion of the Serb-majority north into Prishtina’s jurisdiction and makes it possible for Serbia to embark on membership talks in 2014. Kosovo willalso sign an Association Agreement – a first step towards its future inclusion into the EU. In neighbouring Albania, the general election in June resulted in a smooth transfer of power to the opposition Socialists, headed by Edi Rama – a remarkable event given the longstanding, bitter history of party polarisation and contested polls. EU representatives on the ground exerted a moderating influence and helped secure a positive outcome. [...]
However, Europeans have no reason to be complacent about the Western Balkans. Economic growth remains at very modest levels after the dip into negative territory in 2012 and key countries such as Serbia face a severe fiscal crisis and remain critically dependent on IMF support. A robust recovery is needed to create the economic underpinning for institutional reforms demanded by the EU. From the deadlock in Bosnia’s complex power-sharing system to the lack of a credible opposition in Serbia or Macedonia, the region’s politics are also stagnant. Civil society remains passive, even in comparison to immediate neighbours such Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. While the EU remains high on the political agenda, the extent of its transformative impact is far from clear.
Developments in Turkey’s tangled relations with the EU were mildly encouraging, albeit from a very low starting point. For the first time since 2010, a new chapter (on regional policy) was opened after France lifted its veto in February. European leaders also debated launching negotiations on two more chapters (on fundamental rights and the judiciary, and justice, freedom, and security) that are much more political in nature. Turkey and the EU also signed a readmission agreement, a key stepping stone to visa-free access to Schengen – a longstanding Turkish demand. Turkey’s leadership is also keen to find a solution to the Kurdish issue, including through constitutional reform, and is pursuing dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. These developments give Europeans an opportunity to recover some of the leverage it had lost in recent years as accession negotiations stalled.
The Gezi Park protests against the AKP government that began in May showed that some citizens feel that Turkey had veered away from the democratisation path and reflect to some extent the failed promise of Europeanisation. In the absence of a strong external anchor, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has instituted a majoritarian and increasingly illiberal governance system, with civil society mobilisation substituting for the missing checks and balances. But, because it is so internally divided on Turkey, the EU has a limited ability to support domestic change – if it even still has ambitions to do so. Europe and Turkey also disagreed on some foreign policy issues in 2013: apart perhaps from France, few EU member states shared Turkey’s bellicose attitude to the civil war in Syria.
The EU faced a major setback in the eastern neighbourhood when Ukraine failed to sign an Association Agreement and DCFTA at the Vilnius summit in November. The DCFTA with Ukraine was the most comprehensive the EU had ever negotiated and was meant to set an example for the other states of the region. In the event, however, the common neighbourhood with Russia became a key area of conflict with Moscow as its pressure on Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine undermined the EU’s integration policy. Led by Germany, Europeans pressed for the release of Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko, which brought some progress in the Ukrainian judicial and legal system. But shortly before the Vilnius summit in November, some Europeans – especially Central Eastern member states – were prepared to drop the issue of Tymoshenko’s imprisonment and became more willing to make compromises for signing the agreements. Modernisation of the Ukrainian gas-transit pipeline was also hampered by Russian pressure and differences between EU member states, although reverse flow of gas to Ukraine was extended in 2013.
A second setback in the eastern neighbourhood was the decision of the Armenian government to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to withdraw its security guarantee to Armenia. Armenia’s decision to join the customs union will stop the completion of a DCFTA with the EU for the time being. Brussels has yet to find a way to respond to this pressure and has no strategy on how to deal with the Russian-led customs union – a direct challenge to the EU’s DCFTAs. On the other hand, the EU initialled Association Agreements and DCFTAs with Georgia and Moldova at the Vilnius summit. The presidential election in Georgia marked an important step forward for the country which brought a change of leadership in a post-Soviet country in peaceful free and fair elections. Moldova, now the closest of the six Eastern Partnership countries to the EU, met all benchmarks for visa liberalisation, which led to the decision of the Commission to recommend the lifting of visa requirements. Moldova also adopted a new energy strategy. Germany, Sweden, and Poland played an important role to bring Moldova closer to the EU.
One final significant European achievement in 2013 was the opening in May of the European Endowment for Democracy. Although its budget of around €14 billion is much less than expected, it means that the EU now has a flexible instrument for supporting civil society in its neighbourhood. Its creation is also timely: with the small successes in Georgia and Moldova and the big failure in Ukraine, the EU will have to recalibrate its instruments. Above all, 2013 illustrated that Europeans need to find a way to respond to Russian pressure on Eastern Partnership countries.