Eastern neighbourhood

Tough love for the EU's Eastern neighbours

Bulletin article
Heather Grabbe and Henning Tewes
01 August 2003

After it embraces ten new members in 2004, the EU will have long borders with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Few people in today's EU know or care much about these countries. But the security of EU citizens depends on the Union developing a long-term policy to integrate its new neighbours economically, politically and socially into the European mainstream. EU states can never be safe so long as their neighbours are poor and unstable countries, rife with the trafficking of arms, drugs and people.

Günter Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, is to chair a task-force to develop the EU's policies on its new neighbourhood. Here are a few ideas on how to deepen the EU's ties with its new neighbours. First, the EU has to make support for its neighbours' economic and social development an integral part of its security strategy. So far, the EU has tried to protect itself from problems such as cross-border crime, terrorism and lawlessness by strengthening frontier controls and demanding that Ukrainians, Russians and others obtain visas before they can visit Central and East European countries. This policy has negative side-effects, because the new barriers hinder trade and investment, as well as social contacts - people outside the Union get the impression that they are being cut off.

To soften the impact of its visa and frontier policies, the EU has to work more closely with neighbouring countries. For example, it should set up EU regional offices to issue visas, so that ordinary citizens can obtain them quickly and cheaply. Such offices could also administer scholarship programmes and educational exchanges. The EU should also deepen its co-operation with Ukraine and Russia on policing and judicial matters. The EU already provides considerable financial support to Ukraine to improve its law enforcement capacity, to counter money laundering and to train border guards. These measures help Ukraine, and they will also ensure more effective policing of the EU's new borders.

Co-operation on 'hard security' is also important, especially with Russia, the major military power in the region. The EU should support joint policing and peace-keeping operations with Russia and Ukraine - such as those in the Balkans. The Union also needs to take Russia into account as it develops joint policies on arms procurement. The EU should seek to re-direct Russia's military-industrial complex towards western markets, to discourage Russia from exporting arms and technology to Iran, China and North Korea. The Russian security establishment, which is rife with anti-western sentiment, is likely to object to such EU involvement, and some EU governments will be reticent to work with the Russians. But if the EU offered greater market access to Russian arms, attitudes might begin to shift.

The EU needs to offer the Russians a high-level, strategic forum in which leaders can discuss matters of common concern, such as peacekeeping, terrorism, co-operation on borders and illegal migration, and environmental issues. The new EU-Russia structure should not be like the cumbersome and ineffective NATO-Russia council - which brings together 27 NATO ministers plus the Russians. The EU should limit participants to the Commission president and the soon-to-be-created EU foreign minister and European Council president, plus relevant commissioners. The Russians should also invite only their top-level ministers.

Economic co-operation is vital to increasing the prosperity of the EU's neighbours. The Union rightly supports WTO membership for both Russia and Ukraine, because it would give them better access to world markets and improve conditions for investment. The EU insists that WTO membership is a precondition for closer economic ties, such as a free trade area or a 'common European economic space'. But how willing is the EU to offer access to its own markets to encourage reforms? It still refuses to open up fully its markets to exports of sensitive products - particularly agriculture, textiles and steel - from Ukraine and Russia. Greater market access is economically important, and it would also encourage the EU's eastern neighbours to adopt a more pro-western stance.

Finally, the EU needs to engage with civil society, not just with governments. In addition to political dialogue between Brussels and national capitals, the EU must foster people-to-people contact through the development of civil society ties across Europe. This is especially important for Belarus, where the government may be unwilling to co-operate, but where many NGOs, universities and schools would like to develop closer links with the EU.
The EU should follow a twin-track approach to encouraging democratisation in Belarus. At the governmental level, political ties with the EU should remain conditional on improvements in the Lukashenka regime's regard for civil liberties and democratic freedoms. At the same time, the EU should engage directly with civil society organisations to increase its links with the people of Belarus. The current government cannot continue forever, and the EU must invest in relationships with the country's future political leaders and the next generation of Belarussians.

This overall strategy can be summed up as 'tough love' - offering greater inclusion for neighbouring countries but also tougher conditionality, in requiring countries to uphold democratic standards before the EU grants benefits to them. It emphasises inclusion and progressive integration rather than focusing on the question of eventual membership. Although Ukraine has toyed with the idea of applying for membership, it has not undertaken the domestic political and economic reforms that would enable it to join anytime soon. Nevertheless, the EU should not rule out membership forever.

The EU has spent more than a decade persuading the candidate countries of central and eastern Europe to adopt and implement its democratic principles. This policy has been very successful, but now the Union has to extend this strategy eastwards without being able to offer fast accession as an inducement. The EU therefore needs to build a package of interim rewards - such as aid, trade and political ties - to encourage its neighbours to meet its norms and adopt its values. Tough love means that the EU should be consistent in its demands but unwavering in its support for reforms.

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