EU “losing the battle for hearts and minds” in Eastern Neighbourhood and risks more confrontation with Russia, says new report

2009/07/27

A complacent strategy focusing on slow change rather than pressing crises is losing the EU its battle with Russia for influence in the eastern neighbourhood, according to a new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations. The report predicts dire consequences for the six eastern neighbours of the EU – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – as well as for the EU itself unless EU leaders improve their act and stop placing a lazy bet on a strategy of “enlargement-lite” – ignoring that the six countries are deep in the worst political and economic crisis since their independence. This irresponsible lack of attention means Europe risks another “August surprise” with Russia, like last year’s Georgian war – this time over new elections in Moldova or another gas crisis in Ukraine. Yet the EU continues to pursue a strategy of incremental, long-term reform in the region, as most recently with the “Eastern Partnership” launched in May.

The report, entitled The limits of enlargement-lite: European and Russian power in the troubled neighbourhood, is based on extensive work by researchers mapping EU and Russian power in each of the six neighbourhood countries. The authors, Andrew Wilson and Nicu Popescu, argue that the EU urgently needs to rethink its approach to eastern Europe or face a ring of failing states and an increasingly active Russia rebuilding its sphere of influence.

Wilson and Popescu say:

The EU has reached the limits of its transformative power in eastern Europe. Without the accession carrot, the countries of the eastern neighbourhood will not naturally gravitate towards the EU, as Brussels policymakers seem all too often to assume. It’s time for the EU to understand that if they do not help eastern European states to deal with the crises ravaging the region, Russia will.

Distrust and fatigue increasingly cloud the EU’s relationship with its eastern neighbours. With Russia’s influence growing, the EU must work to save the region from turning into a quagmire of half-reformed or failing states.

While the EU dithers, Russia has drastically overhauled its foreign policy since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and has developed new and effective ways of using soft and hard power in the neighbourhood. All neighbourhood countries, other than Belarus, trade more with the EU than Russia. But Russia skillfully uses its smaller economic muscle to gain bigger political clout through strategic investments and realist politics. Countries can do without IKEA, but they can’t do without gas.

The single biggest factor identified for tarnishing the EU’s soft power and standing in the neighbourhood is the restrictive, discriminatory, and opaque nature of its visa polices.  Whereas Russia provides visa-free access and encourages migration, citizens of Ukraine and Moldova can no longer visit Schengen EU without visas. The EU does nothing to act on its vague long-term promise of eventual visa-free travel.  For many migrant workers from the neighbourhood, it is Russia not “fortress Europe” who provides an opportunity for a better life.

The report’s findings include:

1. Distrust between the neighbourhood and the EU is on the rise. Polling data analysed for the first time in this report shows that the EU needs to regain hearts and minds in the region. Moldova is the only neighbourhood country in which a majority of the population clearly favours integration with the EU over Russia. In Ukraine, the linchpin state of the region where EU approval is rapidly waning, 42% of the population is now in favour of integration with Russia, as opposed to 34% with the EU.

2. The neighbourhood is blighted by crises. Moldova’s parliament has burned, Ukraine lives in fear of a Crimea flare-up, and Russian soldiers are less than 100 kilometers away from the Georgian capital. The damage caused by the economic crisis means there is a real risk of failed economies, if not failed states, on the EU border.

3. The consequences of the neighbourhood’s crises for the EU are profound. A prolonged contest between the EU and Russia’s ambitions for a “sphere of influence” over the neighbourhood is likely to increase tensions in EU-Russia relations and lead to further conflicts. Re-ignited hostilities and economic collapse could cause an influx of migrants. Several EU member states, notably Austria and Italy, are heavily exposed to the neighbourhood’s imploding economies.

For the full text of the report: http://ecfr.eu/page/-/documents/ECFR_eastern_neighbourhood_report.pdf

Recommendations to EU policymakers:

1. Bureaucratic strategies like the Eastern Partnership urgently need to be complemented by dynamic, country-specific measures, to help the neighbourhood states resist short-term political and economic pressures.

In Ukraine, an EU “political troubleshooter” should be tasked with resolving the political conflict that is paralysing the country. In Georgia, the EU must maintain its monitoring mission and step up efforts to resolve the crippling tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. In Moldova, which is in danger of sliding into authoritarianism following contested elections in April, the EU should couple generous offers of aid with tough demands for reform of security agencies and an end to harassment of the media and opposition groups.

2. The EU must rekindle its appeal to neighbourhood states. Visa regimes for citizens of the neighbourhood countries urgently need to be liberalised. Sweden – which along with Poland was the inspiration for the Eastern Partnership – should use its EU presidency to get a high level EU troika to embark on a “listening tour” throughout the region and initiate a “27+6” foreign ministers meeting. To counter the perception that it is the motherland of bureaucracy and red tape, the EU should invest in innovative ways of supporting media freedom, such as a “new media school”, and offer financial assistance for wireless internet access in Moldova and Georgia.

3. Without sacrificing its own interests or principles, the EU must look for ways to work with Russia to make the region more stable. This will help quell notions that the EU, by striving for influence in the Eastern neighbourhood, is essentially waging an ideological war against Russia. The EU should express its support from Medvedev’s proposals for a “new European security architecture”.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

  1. Nicu Popescu is a Research Fellow at ECFR. He holds a doctorate in International Relations from the Central European University in Budapest. In 2005-2007, Nicu was a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels and was previously a visiting fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris. Nicu runs a blog on the EU’s neighbourhood and Russia for the EU Observer (in English) and a foreign policy blog in Romanian. He can be reached at nicu.popescu@ecfr.eu or press@ecfr.eu, or on +44 7795 312467.
  2. Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR. Previously he was a Reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His most recent books include Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. He can be reached at andrew.wilson@ecfr.eu or press@ecfr.eu, or by telephone on +44 7920 421066.
  3. This report, like all ECFR publications, represents the views of its authors, not the collective position of ECFR or its Council Members.
  4. For all media enquiries please email press@ecfr.eu or telephone +44 20 7031 1623.
  5. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is the first pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values based foreign policy. http://www.ecfr.eu/

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