December 12, 2013

Preaching to the Unconverted: A Strategic View of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program

We should give up the idea that European values are somehow going to win over the continent on their own.

Normally, when I address the topic of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EP) program, I am a boundlessly irrepressible optimist. Living in the EU and having worked on and in the six EP countries for most of my professional life, it’s clear to me that the Eastern Partnership is an admirable and well-intentioned effort, one that is indeed of importance both for the EU and for the EP countries themselves.
However, writing for an Estonian readership rather intimately familiar with the benefits of deeper EU engagement with countries once part of the Soviet Union, I do not envision many people disagreeing with my contention that an eastward focus for the EU is a good thing. The English language has a saying ideal for just this sort of situation:  “there’s no point in preaching to the converted.”  Accordingly, at a time just before the critical juncture of the Vilnius summit on the Eastern Partnership on November 28-29, it would be far more valuable instead to take a step back and think critically about the challenges that the EP program faces both before and after Vilnius.
To do that, we need to analyze the situation in three ways, each of which will be addressed in turn.
First, our assessment has to be situated in reality. We have to admit that in the past 4 years since its establishment, the Eastern Partnership has not been an unalloyed success; moreover, no matter what happens at Vilnius, it will continue to face challenges from contentious domestic political environments both within the EU and within partner countries. Second, our thinking has to be strategic in nature, viewing the EP not in the warm, fuzzy glow of feel-good rhetoric, but in the harsh light of a cool assessment of the interests of the parties involved. And third, we need to keep the practical applications of that strategic perspective at the forefront of our analysis, especially in terms of energy, trade, and visa liberalization.
To paraphrase an infamous American government statement of relatively recent vintage, we need to confront the pre-Vilnius Summit environment we have, not the one that we want. It isn’t just that we ought to note and acknowledge that the EP has a long way to go in order to fulfill its original potential, or that its return on investment has not been all that it could be. It’s that the whole notion of a summit based on “values” is itself unrealistic. Indeed, perhaps the single best suggestion I can make for further discussion of this topic is a relatively simple one: give up the idea—now, in the near future, and forevermore—that European values like consensus-building and liberal democracy are somehow going to win over the continent on their own, opening a zone of prosperity and progress stretching from Portugal to the Pacific.  As admirable as the EU’s ideas are, they will never have the effect that their proponents hope for within the global battle for influence, for two reasons, which I’ll call “aptitude” and “appetite.”
First, the EU has not demonstrated much aptitude in waging battles for influence; it’s simply not very good at them. (Witness how much more successful the Russian Federation has been at using a combination of incentives and threats to encourage wavering countries like Armenia to decline greater EU economic and political cooperation; to the surprise of so many, Armenia discarded a painstakingly-negotiated association agreement with the EU at the last minute in order to join the new Russian-led Eurasian Union. Moreover, the EU’s expensive reform and democracy-promotion efforts—deployed most extensively and notably in Belarus—have brought about little reform and even less democracy.
Second, its citizens and states have no real appetite for these battles either.  While support for expansion has consistently been strong in countries such as Estonia and Poland, for the core member states in Western Europe the “high” of enthusiasm for enlargement that accompanied the 2004 accession has long since passed. The failure of Giscard d’Estaing’s constitution project has made people question its political direction, and the fiscal crisis has made people question its economic direction.
By no means am I saying that we should give up. But not giving up means that we have a clearer vision of why we’re not giving up, a clarity of vision that only comes through my next point: strategic thinking.
Strategic Vision
Interestingly, the very notion that strategy should determine the future of the Eastern Partnership is still not universally accepted.   In an otherwise excellent speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg this month about the pressure being placed on EP countries by Russia, Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle declared that “while some of you [MEPs] call on me to be more robust to promote strategic games, this I will not do. I have problems participating in zero-sum games, as I am a believer in win-win games….”
Of course, no government official or diplomat wants to talk openly about zero-sum games—the skeptical among you are more than welcome to test the accuracy of this statement at the next on-the-record event of your choice, as for obvious reasons of diplomacy and tactics the rule is a solidly reliable one. But in our own reflection and in private discussion, we have to be careful not to fall into the “naive assumption that there are lots of win-win [situations] out there…there aren’t. It’s pretty much a zero-sum game and either you go with Russia or the EU.”
As the case of Armenia has revealed to us, with specific regard to the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, countries really do face a mutually exclusive choice between the EU’s internal market and the new Russian-led Таможенный Союз, two different and quite often contradictory sets of rules regarding imports and exports from outside the zone. Certainly, it is indeed true, as Füle has argued, that “we cannot afford to waste our efforts on a regional geopolitical rivalry.”  But so long as one exists, ignoring it is naive—and potentially costly.
Yet it is also quite true that we shouldn’t embrace the rivalry for its own sake, either. Instead, the EU needs to adopt a vision of its own making, one based on a pragmatic, utilitarian vision for what Europe is and should be.  What could this mean in practice?
I argue that in dealing with the Eastern Partnership, the EU should build its relationships with partner countries not on a broad, far-reaching values-based agenda, but instead on a few carefully chosen strategic issues of strong mutual interest. This is not to say that the EU should take its time building these relationships—indeed, arguably the most fundamental diplomatic accomplishment of the Lithuanian presidency has been to increase the sense of urgency surrounding the EP—and thus if we wait too long, it may be too late.  Furthermore, focusing on selected issues also does not mean that those are the only ones the EU is willing to work on over the long term. But in order for something to be on the table, well, you have to first build a table—and if you want it to be a useable piece of furniture, it’s probably a good idea to start by constructing the legs on which the main piece will rest.
Practical Applications
This brings me then to my last and briefest point, on what those “legs” of our strategic partnership table should be. But first, kindly permit a small digression, a brief tale that illustrates why one really should not underestimate the degree to which narrowly-tailored strategic partnerships can evolve into far more profound and consequential forms of cooperation.
Once upon a time, there was a group of countries that, for various geopolitical and economic reasons, agreed to pool certain energy and industrial resources together for their mutual benefit. This partnership chose to call itself by the stirringly inspiring poetic title of “Coal and Steel Community,” which the non-specialists among you will most assuredly be forgiven for not having heard of. But perhaps its modern name—after a few mergers and treaty updates along the way—might be more familiar to you: the European Union.
With that precedent in mind, let me suggest three issues that best play the role of coal and steel for the Eastern Partnership and the EU today. First is energy1, an issue on which both sides share the same concerns and face the same challenges—often from the same source. The second and third “legs” of our table are visa liberalization and trade. Unlike energy, these two have a unique advantage as we try to restrain our expectations and remain realistic ahead of Vilnius: they are projects that can be implemented quickly and can indeed “stand on their own” that is, the EU can pursue them without necessarily having made any progress on the others.
By visa liberalization, I do not necessarily mean lifting visas entirely, which of course is based on a variety of technical criteria, but rather simplifying requirements, eliminating the enormous paperwork burden required of anyone seeking to enter the Schengen zone, and in general restoring a sense of humanity and dignity to the whole process that avoids sending the subtle (and often overt!) signal to applicants from partner countries that they are most definitely not “European.”  None of these moves require any reciprocal action from partners; indeed, for many years now, it has been the case in all of the partner countries except Azerbaijan and Belarus that no visa requirements exist for EU citizens whatsoever. Nor do they require the notification and ratification of dense technical agreements between the two sides.
Similarly, many trade restrictions can be lifted well before full membership in the EU’s customs zone is awarded.  To pick one great example—speaking only in personal capacity as an Estonian resident with a sense of good taste—is the recent unilateral decision to lift the remaining EU quotas on wine imports from Moldova shortly after Russia banned such imports for strictly “sanitary” reasons, completely unrelated of course to its view of  Chișinău’s ongoing negotiations with Brussels.
Ultimately, no matter which specific agreements are unveiled for the Eastern Partnership at Vilnius, the long, hard work of bringing about closer integration with Brussels will really only have begun.  For Estonians now concerned about the fate of these six former fellow members of Mikhalkov’s “unbreakable union of freeborn republics” , the best way forward is to work to emphasize the strategic nature and practical benefits of this long process—only in this way can the path to a different sort of union open to these countries in the future.
1 For more on the practical application of energy (a topic not addressed at length in the present article), as well as the strategic perspective advocated here, please see Emmet Tuohy and Anna Bulakh, Narrow Focus, Broad Vision: A Strategic View of the Eastern Partnership (Tallinn: ICDS, 2013), available at…