The EU should apply more ‘less for less’ to Trio 2030 strategy

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Sergi Kapanadze
Sergi Kapanadze

Vice-speaker of the Parliament of Georgia, Jean Monnet Chair at the Caucasus University and Professor at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi

The European Union’s Eastern neighbours – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – are going through turbulent times. Russian occupation, annexation and illegal military presence are major issues. On top of that, negative trends in the democratic development of this trio have recently emerged. The EU can address this shortcoming, but to do so, it needs to employ a more robust ‘less for less’ principle in addition to ‘more for more’ – a well-known mantra that the Association Agreements, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) and visa liberalisation regimes envisage.

Yes, it is true that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are still generally on the Western and specifically European course. In Ukraine, both President Volodymyr Zelensky and former president Petro Poroshenko maintained pro-European rhetoric, foreign policy and by and large economic and public administration reforms. In Moldova, even the pro-Russian dominated coalition governments claim that they are pro-European. In Georgia, European aspirations have been enshrined in the constitution by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

However, the democratic backsliding, and, hence, the questions over the pro-European choice, are obvious in all three countries, as Freedom House regularly points out. In Georgia, “progress has stagnated in recent years” and “oligarchic actors hold outsized influence over policy and political choices”. In Moldova “pervasive corruption in the government sector, links between major political parties and powerful economic interests, and deficiencies in the rule of law continue to hamper democratic governance”. In Ukraine “corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented”.

Important elections in Moldova and Georgia this year will be decisive in determining the course of these countries

In all three countries, oligarchic rules and lack of accountability towards the general public have become endemic. Indeed, oligarchs do not care about people, especially if they rule informally, as Vladimir Plahotniuc did in Moldova and Bidzina Ivanishvili is still doing in Georgia. With such informal rules, ministers feel accountable not to the people, but rather to their superior oligarchs. This has been a well-known problem in Ukraine and still prevails in Georgia, as Mr Ivanishvili’s personal security detail, banker, doctor and dentist all hold important government positions. And that is certainly not a European practice.

Important elections in Moldova and Georgia this year will be decisive in determining the course of these countries. There is a likelihood that pro-Kremlin forces will gain momentum, or an even tighter grip on power. But whatever the outcome of these elections, the EU can do more to keep these countries on the European track. And it can do more by effectively applying the ‘less for less’ principle.

The biggest mistake the EU has made in the last few years is to downplay the lack of progress, and in many cases stagnation, of democracy in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. The EU has neglected the importance of public criticism of undemocratic practices, preferring to address these in private dialogue. The EU has also refrained from withholding funds, issuing warnings, or suspending certain policies. This watered-down approach took place even when free media was attacked, opposition activists arrested, public rallies violently dispersed, corruption levels increased and elections are rigged or marred with violence and vote-buying. This undue credit given to the governments of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has backfired.

The EU needs to issue more public warnings, withhold funds and sometimes even suspend existing programmes

Very often we have heard the explanation that there was no need for such drastic actions, since these three countries were still EaP frontrunners. What EU senior officials often forget is that it is easy to be a frontrunner if no one else is running.

In 2020, the EU will deliberate about the future strategy towards this EaP trio. Talks are intense about the Trio 2030 strategy, which would offer specific long-term instruments to support further reforms and investments in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.

This is a good approach, but for it to succeed, a robust conditionality, embodied in ‘less for less’ principle will need to be employed. This means that if human rights are violated, elections are rigged, democratic standards trampled, votes bought, political opponents arrested, media attacked and authoritarian trends strengthened, the EU needs to agree to act. And by acting, it needs to issue more public warnings, withhold funds and sometimes even suspend existing programmes. This has to be coupled with more assistance and support in exchange for more reforms and more good governance.

The enlargement eastwards was successful because it was based on robust conditionality and a membership promise

The main counterargument to the ‘less for less’ approach stresses that such EU actions would further empower pro-Kremlin groups and decrease support for the European integration in the EaP countries. This is a fallacious argument. These groups are already empowered and no government in Kiev, Chisinau or Tbilisi is doing enough to counter them. Public money often ends up in pro-Kremlin media outlets or political forces, and Russian-backed NGOs are already very active. Fake news campaigns sponsored by Moscow often converge with the fake news anti-Western campaigns organised by government trolls. In fact, should such collusions come to public light, as it recently did in Georgia, EU should employ ‘less for less’ here too.

Another counterargument, that such ‘less for less’ would steer undemocratic governments away from the EU and towards Russia, is also fallacious. The EU need not forget that public support for European course in all EaP countries is overwhelming. Therefore, no government can afford to do what Viktor Yanukovych tried. The example of Euromaidan is still fresh and a 60-70 % support margin for the EU in the trio countries is enough for any government to stay on the European track, no matter how strong the EU’s actions and statements are.

The enlargement eastwards was successful because it was based on robust conditionality and a membership promise. The Eastern Partnership, on the other hand, is based on soft conditionality and does not include a membership promise. If both of these elements are maintained, the Trio 2030 strategy is doomed for failure and the negative trends in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will persist.

However, stepping up ‘less for less’ and using the ‘naming and shaming’ approach could sustain the pro-democracy course in the EaP countries. That is, until the EU realises that full integration of EaP states is in its interest and opens membership doors to Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.

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