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Toward a European Eastern Policy: Options and Challenges after the Lisbon Treaty

By Iris Kempe

The latest elections in Ukraine, the Georgia-Russia war, and the efforts of civil society actors in Belarus to free themselves from Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic influence all show how the European Union’s need for improved policy toward its eastern neighbors is increasing. The EU has done more for security and stability in the regions beyond its eastern border than any other actor. Prospects for EU membership pushed the states in East Central Europe to press forward with their transformation and develop free-market democracies that were suitable for joining the Union. This process emancipated them as much as possible from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, and they have instead become the sharpest critics of European cooperation with Russia. At the same time, they have become advocates on behalf of the EU’s eastern neighboring states. To date, however, neither the European Union nor its member states have found a sustainable strategic approach to developments in the European neighborhood.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on December 1, 2009, offers advantages for further enlargement even if its implementation will take some time, including the time needed to negotiate competencies between member states and European institutions. The Lisbon Treaty provides a three-pronged strategic toolbox. First, on the institutional level, the new office of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union gives greater weight to the EU in external matters, such as relations with eastern neighbors. The European External Action Service, as a nascent European diplomatic corps that builds on the EU’s existing missions, will also enable greater efficiency in external affairs. At the very highest level, the establishment of a permanent President of the European Council, to drive the work of the EU’s heads of state and government, has the potential to give EU policy greater coherence than it had in the pre-Lisbon era. Second, an innovation in the current Barroso Commission is Czech Commissioner Stefan Füle’s responsibility for enlargement and neighborhood policy. In the course of his hearing in the European Parliament on January 12, 2010, Füle spoke in favor of adding more substance than procedures when it comes to enlargement and neighborhood policy. Third, Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty includes the option of developing a special relationship with neighboring countries.

The current agenda of eastern policy must respond to both the challenges emanating from the region and the EU’s ability to shape events. The greatest challenges lie in successfully supporting democratic transformation, linked with increasing alignment with European institutions. In this area, the EU should use its new opportunities to integrate with the Union. Two aspects are decisive for a pan-European security order: energy, and handling the eastern neighbors’ ethno-territorial conflicts. In both of these aspects, the roles of Turkey and Russia as potentially positive actors should be respected far more than they currently are in the Eastern Partnership.

Challenges of democratic transformation

None of the eastern neighbors has established a stable democratic system. The political systems of the neighboring states range from autocracy to unsteady democracy. The core of a European eastern policy must be to strengthen democratic developments so that the states of the region are less vulnerable to crises and to efforts by Russia to influence domestic political developments. The stronger the neighboring states’ democracies become, the more reliable they will be as partners for European cooperation. Consolidated democracies in the EU’s eastern neighborhood would also give the states of the region the basis for independent foreign relations. Furthermore, consolidated democracies and successful market economies in its direct neighborhood would have a positive effect on Russia’s development. The societies of the region are too intensively intertwined for any potential new Iron Curtain erected by the elite to shut out spillover effects. To take advantage of the potential offered by current conditions, European policy should make strenuous efforts to increase societal and democratic contacts.

Key moments for these developments are elections, and the conditions surrounding them, including electoral law, party financing, and media freedom. Early identification and support for change agents must be a top priority. Careful understanding of the situation in the neighboring states cannot be lost to overly hasty importation of Western approaches.

Belarus and Azerbaijan, countries with autocratic systems, pose the greatest democratic challenges. To date, European policy has centered on contacts with civil society and sanctions against the regime in Belarus. In December 2010 the EU will have to decide whether to sanction the regime. Those shaping European eastern policy should make a cool, reasoned assessment of the experience with this approach. Furthermore, the EU should be prepared for a variety of possible scenarios regardless of the present regime, and it should be particularly prepared for systemic change. In the event of democratic transformation, the European Union should already be prepared with strategies for strengthening democracy in the countries affected by the change.

Russia plays a special role. Its political leadership is drifting ever further from democratic standards, and yet it has an important role in numerous aspects of European eastern policy. Only if Russia also feels obligated to meet democratic standards will it be able to develop a neighborhood policy in its “near abroad” that goes beyond hegemony and spheres of influence. The European Union and selected member states see themselves as obligated to press for stronger democratic standards in Russia. Implementing this policy has, to date, come to grief as a result of the dominance of other common interests, particularly European energy security. These interests have made it impossible to base European policy toward Russia on democratic fundamentals. If the member states could reach a consensus on priorities, the EU’s negotiating hand would be stronger. The Treaty of Lisbon offers a chance to strengthen the Union’s capacity in Russian policy, a chance that should not be missed. The same holds true for the necessity of spelling out a European energy charter.

The most promising strategy to strengthen democracy would be prospects for membership in the European Union. As long as that remains unlikely, the EU and its member states, as the actors in a new eastern policy, must set attractive incentives for democratic transformation. Depending on the neighbors’ domestic developments, possibilities include visa-free travel and free-trade agreements. Membership in the Union should not be excluded as a matter of principle. Implementing these possibilities depends on both the development of the neighboring states and on the EU’s ability to continue with integration. Apart from enlargement fatigue, policymakers should recall that developments in nearby states are also a motor for European integration.

Europe as a national priority

To date, conceptual advances in European eastern policy have come as the EU has reacted to developments in the neighboring states. European Neighborhood Policy was a reaction to the “color revolutions”; the Eastern Partnership came as a reaction to the Georgia-Russia war.

Without going into too much detail about the democratic development and European orientation of each neighboring state, it is appropriate to sum up significant shortcomings. In none of the eastern neighbors has the Union succeeded in making the European Neighborhood Policy an attractive policy instrument that reaches effectively beyond a small elite. The way the states have handled the neighborhood action plans has shown that the governments implement the contents in a formal sense, but that legal and regulatory reforms fail to have significant visible effects. In principle, the Eastern Partnership offers a broad spectrum of new opportunities for cooperation and includes a wider range of actors, particularly representatives of civil society and actors from within the region. Nevertheless, the neighboring states have not sufficiently recognized the Partnership’s potential and do not understand the difference between the European Neighborhood Policy and its successor, the Eastern Partnership.

Without attractive incentives, the neighboring states remain unlikely to make European integration an actual national priority. For that reason, it is important for a new European eastern policy to be communicated clearly, beyond governmental circles, and for it to have actively attractive incentives for cooperation. The civil-society format of the Eastern Partnership offers a promising method to address democratic deficits in the neighboring states by prominently including the promoters of change. Poland should strengthen this approach and promote it among other EU member states, particularly Germany, which is hosting the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in November 2010.

Actors: Civil society and neighboring states

To take democratic developments in the neighboring states seriously, the EU’s eastern policy should continue to center on the Eastern Partnership and civil society actors. Civil society should participate in the conceptualizing, execution, and monitoring of European eastern policy. It should also be supported more strongly than before in the implementation of European policy. Fundamentally, it is important to bear in mind which role civil society plays, and how far it is developed. It is particularly important to recognize that “civil society” is often a matter of organized experts outside the official channels of politics, with limited ties to the public at large. Nevertheless, its participation is very important to develop entry points into the policy formation processes and to build the means for communication with the broader public about the European Union.

Including civil society means engaging with the actual promoters of democratic change. A selection should not be made from formal and abstract criteria, but on the basis of close understanding of the countries in question.

The regional and local levels should form a more important element of European eastern policy. Regional actors are important supporters not only of European integration but also of democratic transformation. Establishing federalism is a task of the democratic transition and an element of modern governmental practice. Furthermore, functioning local and regional authorities are also basic pre-conditions for cross-border cooperation. Depending on the territorial situation of a given neighboring state, cross-border cooperation can mean building relations between the EU and a neighbor, as between Poland and Ukraine, or constructive relations at the regional level, as in the Caucasus.

Cooperation and integration — The “Norway Scenario”

Sectoral cooperation will deliver the greatest impact of European eastern policy, because the neighboring states will, step-by-step, become elements of European integration. Particularly attractive for the eastern neighbors is the development of visa-free travel, as well as easing restrictions on limited work permits within the European Union. Visa-free travel would be a significant contribution not only to Eastern Europe’s economic development but also to societal convergence with the rest of Europe. By relaxing such visible rules, the EU would send a clear signal that it is putting its rhetoric against new dividing lines into practice.

In taking this step, the EU should ensure that the reduction of restrictions on trade is done as publicly as possible, not only in the neighboring states but also within the European Union. Publicity will ensure that freer travel serves as a major incentive for transformation within the neighboring countries.

The Union should also examine which EU institutions could offer the neighbors actual membership, with a goal of increasing economic integration with these states’ EU partners. This will become possible as soon as the conditions in selected areas of sectoral cooperation are met. For example, it could be attractive for both sides if the neighboring states were to join the European Energy Agency. Sectoral cooperation would have the advantage that the eastern neighbors could work out a concrete agenda to drive their reforms. By meeting European standards in a particular field, they would be able to approach the EU step-by-step, rather than having to accomplish the entire politico-economic transformation at once.


Energy supply and energy security are key parts of a European eastern policy. No other field of policy so tightly ties or deeply influences the interests and dependence of Russia, the neighboring states, and the European Union.

EU eastern policy should advocate a paradigm change energy supply. “Homestream” should take priority. The more effectively Europe uses its energy, the greater the reduction in its dependence on Russia. At present, the neighboring states have the least efficient energy use in Europe, thus offering considerable scope for improvement. The use of renewable energy sources should also be extended. The goals of improving efficiency and using more renewables should also be reflected in the programs for technical assistance that the EU offers.

From a strategic perspective, security of delivery is every bit as important as security of sourcing. European policymakers have chosen to improve the security of both by diversifying potential sources and the pipelines required to deliver oil and natural gas. The variants currently under consideration include the Yamal pipeline, North Stream, South Stream, and Nabucco. Even if South Stream and Nabucco are looked at as a means of diversification, dependence on Russia cannot be completely ignored. Relations between Russia and gas-producing states, such as Azerbaijan, are too solid for the EU to expect that these states would choose the EU over Russia in the event of a conflict. The more the European Union is able to construct a common energy policy, the greater its room for maneuver vis-à-vis Russia. The goal should be to tie the interests of energy consumers, transit states, and producers together so that all sides benefit.

Ethno-territorial conflicts

The Russia-Georgia war brutally showed that handling ethno-territorial conflicts such as Abkhazia, Transnistria, Karabakh, South Ossetia, or Gagauzia must be an integral part of European eastern policy. To date, the EU has only partially succeeded in finding solutions to ethno-territorial conflicts. Both the six-point plan that ended the Russia-Georgia war and the EU Monitoring Mission are important steps toward strengthening the Union as an actor capable of securing peace within the wider European neighborhood.

At this level, European actors have an opportunity to strengthen democratic reforms with offers of cooperation. These offers are one approach to breaking through the present political blockade, which maintains that cooperation with the autonomous areas calls the territorial integrity of the larger state into question. Instead, an EU presence should be seen as an alternative to Russian dominance, and as a sign of the potential for strengthening the development of democracy and a market economy. As long as these entities are used by Russia as instruments for advancing its narrow interests, however, this approach will reach its limits.

To apply this idea in practice, cooperation must be established with civil society and a spectrum of democratic actors. Particular attention should be paid to ensuring that the processes have both depth and breadth. The unrecognized authorities, too, cannot work for a constructive future without having to come to terms with events in their most recent past. A key moment for dialogue processes of this type is the opening of borders. This is true for borders between neighboring states, for the borders of the internationally unrecognized territories, and for potential crossing points to Turkey, Russia, or the European Union. There will not be any simple or rapid solutions for the ethno-territorial conflicts, just as there will not be any simple or rapid solutions for integrating the neighboring regions with the rest of Europe. Dealing with the ethno-territorial conflicts requires perseverance, combined with detailed knowledge of developments in the affected regions. The search for a quick solution was a major contributor to the war in August 2008.

Russia and Turkey as integral elements of a European eastern policy

Starting with the football diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia in September 2008, both states have taken initial steps toward reaching an understanding. Antagonized by questions of recognizing Turkish genocide against Armenians in 1915, the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Armenia has been shaped by hatred and division, with sharply negative consequences for options for economic and political development. By contrast, if a thaw in Turkish-Armenia relations were to take hold, Armenia would gain an additional opening in the direction of the EU. The eventual shape of the opening, however, depends on progress in relations between Turkey and the Union. Above all, an opening in the border should be taken as an opportunity to have a positive influence on bilateral and regional relations. One goal should be to integrate Turkey into the framework of a European eastern policy. On the other hand, Turkish-Armenian reconciliation also increases the need for the EU to have a proactive policy toward Turkey. Normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia would also have an effect on Russia’s role in the southern Caucasus. Turkey, and not Russia, would likely become Armenia’s most important international partner, which would in turn strengthen European norms such as good governance, democracy, and stability. Turkey will also play a key role in questions of Europe’s energy supplies. The discussion concerning a “Southern Energy Corridor” is predicated on Turkish participation.

Russia poses the greatest challenge for European eastern policy. European actors may neither ignore Russia, nor may the EU member states allow European institutions to be held hostage by Russian pursuit of particular interests. Differentiating views on Russia and replacing blockages with constructive measures are a particular challenge for the EU, which will constantly be tempted to recall the country’s recent history. But beyond hegemonic approaches from the administration in the Kremlin and the refusal of states in East Central Europe to engage in dialogue with Russian actors, a more neutral perspective shows numerous synergies such as transportation corridors, energy security, and economic integration. To date, it has not been possible to use these commonalities to go beyond mutual interests and strengthen democratic values. A European eastern policy should include a broad spectrum of actors and work to change gears from confrontation to cooperation. It remains very important to support democratic alternatives outside the Kremlin administration. The ongoing economic crisis has also increased the opportunities to exercise influence within Russia. In any event, Russian infringements against democratic fundamentals call for clear rhetoric from the European Union. Its calls will be more effective the more the EU can speak with one voice in both its policy toward Russia and its energy policy. Creation of alliances should begin, in the first instance, among states that have a similar relationship with Russia. On a second level, a goal must be to link the various actors together to secure the effectiveness of the European Union’s common policy. One instrument for doing this is linkages between the Hungarian and Polish presidencies. Further, there should be at least a minimal consensus that EU member states will no longer contradict each other in their approaches to Russia, which has undermined the effectiveness of the Union as a whole.

Whenever new ideas such as the Eastern Dimension or the Eastern Partnership have been tabled, it has been important to keep the “Russian factor” in mind. With the current state of the political system in Russia, that means signaling to Russia – with the help of democratic cooperation – that there are limits to the influence that it can expect to exercise in the “near abroad.” At the same time, representatives of democratic civil society should be engaged. That kind of democratic European dialogue is an instrument for medium-term change, just like reconciliation with the Soviet past. If this dialogue is not kept going, new stereotypes and enmities will easily arise, making it simple for the Kremlin to think and act in Soviet-like spheres of interest. Maintaining a discussion requires the appropriate programs, financial resources, as well as porousness of borders. For example, societal dialogue between Georgia and Russia is not possible at present. Georgian citizens, with very few exceptions, cannot travel to Russia because they cannot get the necessary visa. There are still no diplomatic relations between the two countries. One of Europe’s tasks is to initiate a dialogue and to create the necessary diplomatic conditions for one to take place.

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Europe's East

Prior to the 11. Annual Foreign Policy Conference, we offer suggestions in this matter for a green policy towards the Eastern neighbors of the EU, different views and possible strategies.