Eastern Partnership: Don’t bar the bear

I dedicated my previous post on this blog to success story of European neighborhood policy and its peace efforts on the Balkans. To this day, the EU secures the peace, supports political and economical progress and sets a clear agenda towards the full integration of the Yugoslavian successor states.

The neighborhood policy of the union towards the east, however, is everything but a success. In Ukraine, the protest against President Viktor Yanukovych are escalating, resulting in deaths and tortured people. Despite the resignation of Prime Minster Mykola Asarow and the withdrawal of the controversial emergency laws, an end or a deescalation of the protests is not in sight. What went wrong for the EU?

The EU approached the neighborhood policy in this area very ambitiously.  In May 2009 the Eastern Partnership was founded to connect the Union with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as well as the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Like with the former Yugoslavian countries, the goal was to support political and economical reforms, enabling custom-free trade and visa-free travel. Five years on, the results of these efforts are marginal.

The fundamental difference between the neighborhood policies for the former Yugoslavian countries and former Soviet countries, is the simple fact, that the latter left with Russia a regional power that keeps insisting on its influence in the region and has interests that are not always compatible with those of the European Union. The Russian Bear is not asleep anymore. Every unilateral foray by the Union, to try and get countries like Ukraine away from Moscow and more towards Brussels, will necessarily lead to massive resistance by Russia. And understandably so. If it behaved differently, it would act against its very own interests.

This fact appears pretty trivial. Yet it has not been reflected in the European neighborhood policy so far. That has become apparent not only with the response to the failed Association Agreement with Ukraine in November, but also with the fact that three months on the respective lessons have yet to be learned. No shift in the mindset, no rejection of the controntial course against Russia.

And I’m not even speaking about the stupor of European politicians to use every little opportunity in the run-up to the Olympics to harden the fronts even more.

Last week Presidents Barroso and van Rompuy welcomed Vladimir Putin for the annual EU-Russia summit in Brussels. What used to be two-days gathering of a wide range of leaders from both sides, this year’s has been compressed into a three-hour meeting with the result to agree to disagree.

The only way to solve the problems that emerge from the clash of the European and Russian interests, require both to come to terms with each other. On the part of Europe, it has to take Russia as a partner on a level playing field and acknowledge that Russia, too, has legitmate interests.

If the EU wants to stick with the Eastern Partnership, it at least has to find a way to include Russia – ideally with as a full member. In doing so, the dispute about the influence on the non-Russian former Soviet areas would be put into a institutional framework that provides for the necessary forum and makes it is easy for both to hold each other accountable.

Above all, Russia and the European Union have shared interests, too. The economical and political progress of countries like Ukraine does not have to be a zero-sum-game. It could be a benefit for both side – given, of course, that the power doesn’t shift to one side’s disfavour.

Needless to say, that is not solely up to the EU. Vladimir Putin keeps his share of the confrontational situation and has to be taken into critism as well. In that respect Angela Merkel is not wrong in blaming him for a sort of Cold-War-attitude. But if the blame would go the opposite direction, it wouldn’t be wrong either.

Nobody – neither the EU nor Russia, neither their respective economies nor societies, neither the Ukrainian opposition nor the Ukrainian President – can have a vital interest in permanently bad relations between the two powers. The bloodless ending of the Cold War has been a gift by world history. It is a shame to honor it by being stuck in a sort of Cold Peace 25 years later.

 

This piece first appeared on TheEuropean.de on Feb. 1st (in German). Follow me on Twitter @brnshnwd

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