“I don't want to call it spheres of influence, but…”

30 Jan 2013

The EU will most likely keep Ukraine on the Europeanization track, thereby giving it a chance to sign an Association Agreement on November 28 at the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership (EP).

This was the key political message of Swedish diplomat Madeleine Majorenko, who is a unit head of the European Neighborhood Policy within the Commission’s External Relations Directorate.

At the “Borders of Integration: European Strategies for Neighboring Regions” event held at the European Academy in Berlin on January 23-25, Majorenko said that the EP, from its very inception, was a reaction to Russia’s policies, and more specifically to its war with Georgia in August 2008.

She said, “We might see a more expansive language in Vilnius, largely as a reaction to Russia's policies. People of Eastern Europe belong to Europe, not to Russia. I don't want to call it spheres of influence, but it is what it is.”

Thus, the EU’s interests are nowadays more clear, again thanks to Russia's policies. The way Majorenko described Europe’s interests appears to be a combination of Realpolitik (“Moldova has a chance to join the EU because it is so small”) and a vision of Europe as consisting of concentric rings with Brussels at its center (“Show that you can adapt our rules and work with your neighbors”). These were her messages to countries looking for membership perspective.

The logic, we presume, is that cross-border mobility is not a value per se but “the ultimate reward for countries that behave good and do not pose a threat to us” (perhaps, with the exception of Belarus whose government does not seem to be responsive to EU’s offers for visa facilitation).

One more illustrative quotation from Majorenko: “Our response to Ukraine for now is the following: be ready to accept a “no” but at least you have a chance. Don't ask too much until the time comes.”

Reacting to Russia makes one sometimes put interests over values. Perhaps, the EU understands that it doesn't have many trump cards. Russian’s offer to Eastern Europe is clear: Moscow will reduce gas prices for those who choose to join the Eurasian Union. Does the EU can offer something quantifiable? Not really, at least not in the near term.

In the meantime, the EU still tries to play the role of a normative power while dealing with uneasy eastern neighbors. Majorenko referred to the risk of a new “curtain” beween East and West Europe, which has made the EU develop its European Neighborhood Policy far beyond classical foreign policy lines, striving to transform neighboring countries and negotiating with them acquis, which never happened before.

The EU also wants its neighbors to embrace the concept of a deep (as opposed to hollow) democracy, seemingly as a reaction to the Arab spring. In my view, this is a typical example of wishful thinking: for most of the EP countries, even strengthening some elementary procedures of democracy would be a sign of progress.

For Ukraine, the EU wishes to keep high expectations for the Vilnius summit. But if Ukraine emerges disappointed, in Majorenko's opinion, it will give a hard time to Brussels to continue running the EP as it used to, and to convince other eastern partners to anchor themselves in the EU-centric normative order.

Academic experts at the event were less optimism about the EU's ability to seriously influence its neighbors. For example, Eckart Stratenschulte, the head of the European Academy in Berlin, has sarcastically called the EU “the world champion in producing external strategies” without necessarily implementing them. David Kereselidze, the director of the Athens-based International Center for Black Sea Studies, claimed that the Black Sea Synergy program developed by the EU is short of practical effects due to the multiple conflicts cleaving the region. One German colleague dubbed Eastern Partnership “hopeless.”

Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.