The EU's strategic failures on its eastern and south-eastern boarders: chickens coming home to roost

Europe's World

As Turkey arrests and imprisons more journalists, Ukraine’s eastern regions remain in crisis, and the Balkans stagnate, what happened to any European strategy and soft power influence in its eastern and south-eastern neighbourhood?

The EU is not directly responsible for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attacks on media freedom and other civil liberties; nor is it responsible for President Putin’s invasion of Crimea, and undeclared invasion of eastern Ukraine. But if the European Union had shown sustained strategic thinking and action on its eastern and south-eastern borders in the last two decades, it is certainly conceivable Europe and its eastern neighbourhood would look a lot less troubled today.

Yet the EU does not seem to be in self-critical mode – in the face of authoritarian figures like Putin, and increasingly too Erdogan, this is perhaps not surprising. But the EU needs to learn from its own mistakes in losing actual and potential soft influence over its neighbours.

It has often, accurately enough, been said that the EU’s biggest external influence has been through its ability to offer membership to neighbouring countries – its enlargement programme. Today, twenty five years after the Berlin Wall came down, and ten years after ten central and east European countries became EU member states, this looks like the EU has had a serious, strategic and powerful impact. Seeing Poland as an influential and democratic player on the European scene, or smaller states from Estonia to Slovenia playing a part in EU politics, does indeed suggest the EU did well – albeit with some more negative examples from the deeply worrying anti-democratic trends in Hungary to concerns over corruption in Bulgaria.

But in fact the EU moved hesitantly in the early years after the Berlin Wall came down. It took until 1993 for the EU’s leaders to say that the countries of central and eastern Europe could, some day, become members – setting out that year the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ for democratic and economic systems to be in place before negotiations could start. And there was plenty of discussion as to which countries might become members, and when – leadership from Germany and the UK in particular, with the European Commission, ensuring ten countries started negotiations in 1998 rather than fewer (with Bulgaria and Romania not starting until 2000 and joining in 2007).

But in fact the EU moved hesitantly in the early years after the Berlin Wall came down – most disastrously in its failure to prevent or stop the war in the former Yugoslavia. Even for the other countries of central and eastern Europe, it took until 1993 for the EU’s leaders to say that they could, some day, become members – setting out that year the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ for democratic and economic systems to be in place before negotiations could start. And there was plenty of discussion as to which countries might become members, and when – leadership from Germany and the UK in particular, with the European Commission, ensuring ten countries started negotiations in 1998 rather than fewer (with Bulgaria and Romania not starting until 2000 and joining in 2007). France in particular was less enthusiastic about this enlargement process, seeing it as benefiting Germany more than itself – and with the former East Germany being brought into the EU overnight in 1990 when Germany reunified (showing the EU can move fast and creatively when it chooses too). The Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) also were hesitant, worrying that too much enlargement could block the progress of EU integration that they strongly supported.

Potential EU membership for Ukraine dismissed in the 1990s

So when in the 1990s, there was discussion of the status of countries further East – Ukraine, Moldova, even some discussion in think tank and policy circles of whether a country the size and geographical spread of Russia could join the EU – then instead of grasping the strategic moment, the EU hesitated and found language in summit conclusions to say Ukraine could have a European perspective and partnership agreements but not a membership perspective, although by the late 1990s the Ukrainian government was specifically seeking for eventual EU membership to be open to it. More far-sighted decisions then – about Ukraine and about how to build a serious strategic relationship with Russia – could have resulted in a Ukraine that today was already in the EU, and a more constructive EU-Russia relationship.

Instead, while the majority of Ukrainians have showed in the last year, with their determination to support the weak ‘Association Agreement’ on offer from the EU, that they still want to move towards the EU, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the EU’s half-hearted and unstrategic approach, both today and in the 1990s, has certainly contributed to the current Russia-Ukraine-EU standoff.

The EU has developed in the last two decades a range of policies stopping short of membership for countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and others – from partnership and association agreements all incorporated into the rubric of European Neighbourhood Policy. None of these policies have delivered strategic success or soft power influence of the sort seen in the enlargement to central and eastern Europe.

EU soft power influence over Turkey thrown away in the last decade

In the case of Turkey, with actual membership on offer, the EU did have substantial soft power influence, but it has now in effect been thrown away.

Turkey’s democracy through much of the 1990s was not in a condition whereby it had much chance of opening negotiations with the EU, despite an association agreement since 1963. Yet Turkey was already in NATO and the Council of Europe, and a customs union with the EU was agreed at the end of 1995; and while Turkey’s bid to open negotiations in the late 1980s had been rejected, that was not on the grounds that it was not European (unlike Morocco’s). Finally, in 1999 the EU recognised Turkey as a potential candidate country, and by 2002 said it would decide in the next two years whether to open membership negotiations. With considerable strategic foresight, the UK, Germany and France all managed to agree – not least in the face of the considerable democratic reforms in Erdogan’s early years in office from 2002 – to open negotiations at a summit ten years ago in December 2004. The negotiations started the following autumn – October 2005.

The EU had substantial and constructive soft power influence in Turkey a decade ago – Turkey’s internal tensions and lack of trust between different players were in part overcome by the support of the EU and the promise of membership which thus helped drive democratic reform. Yet almost as soon as negotiations had started the EU’s politics changed.

The EU in 2004 had also brought the divided island of Cyprus into the EU, and Malta. The failure to use the EU’s soft power – and offer of membership – to ensure the division of Cyprus was solved prior to membership (in the face of Greek threats to block the enlargement to Poland, Hungary and the other central Europeans in the 1990s) ensured there was a ready source of friction in the Turkey-EU talks. When new leaders came to power in France and Germany (Merkel and Sarkozy) their reluctance to see Turkey ever join the EU was soon paraded in public statements. Moreover, as problems rapidly arose since Turkey would not recognise the Republic of Cyprus (the Greek Cypriot republic – with the northern Turkish Cypriot part of the island only recognised by Turkey), soon chapters were frozen, negotiations all but halted. France and Germany sometimes hid behind the Greek Cypriots in blocking progress, sometimes were blatant enough in blocking progress themselves.

As a result, optimism and good will towards the EU in Turkey faded as the population and the politicians saw, rightly enough, that the EU no longer appeared serious.

In the last few years, as Erdogan, first as Prime Minister and now President, has shown a hubris and an anti-democratic streak that would suggest Turkey no longer meets the democratic ‘Copenhagen Criteria’, it is in some ways surprising that the formal talks with the EU have not been suspended by Brussels. But what had already been thrown away by the EU itself was its soft power influence over Turkey of a decade ago, and its own strategic European interests in having a strong, effective relationship with Turkey both in itself and as part of its wider Middle East concerns. By opening talks, but then showing its most important member states and leaders were not genuinely behind the prospect of Turkey’s eventual membership, the EU wrote off its own considerable soft power.

Enlargement and the Balkans

While the mistakes over Ukraine were made in the 1990s, and over Turkey, mistakes began to be made eight or nine years ago, Jean Claude Juncker said earlier this autumn that he did not foresee any enlargement of the EU in the next five years. This precipitate statement, without it appears even consulting the EU’s leaders, suggests that those countries in the Balkans that have some hope of eventual membership (Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Hercegovina) cannot expect any strategic priority placed on them in the next half decade. While the fact of talks or the potential for eventual membership may retain some soft power influence for the EU in those countries, it is not surprising if issues of corruption, media freedom, and democracy continue to be problematic nor that Russia should be making efforts to build its own influence in that region.

Losing its soft power in its region

The EU has been embroiled in the euro crisis for half a decade – and the eurozone economy is yet again faltering. But the EU’s failure to ensure a strategic and influential policy towards its eastern and south-eastern neighbours is contributing towards the ring of instability that it faces. The EU needs to face up to its own past, as well as current, weaknesses and strategic failures towards Ukraine, Turkey and the Balkans, if it is not to be doomed to repeat them.

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