The EU and its neighbourhood: engagement without enlargement?

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 by Sandra Fernandes, Professor at UMinho/Researcher of the CICP

Taking a rapid glance at the EU immediate neighbourhood, both Eastward and Southward, the prospects do not look very positive. Since the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in March 2014 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, both the relations with Moscow and with the countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) have not produced the desired results. The EaP was designed in 2009 to boost the 2004 European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and improve convergence with the EU standards, offering approximation without a clear enlargement schedule. On the Southern border of the Mediterranean, the unfulfilled expectations of the Arab Springs and the war in Syria have exposed the lack of effects of the Barcelona Process and have put under serious crisis the ability of the Union to respond to unprecedented migration flows. The Process launched in 1995 has been updated since then into the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Euromed) and later, in 2008, into the Union for the Mediterranean. The ENP added to this political format from 2004 onwards.

Bulgaria has just assumed the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the next six months, as a Southern member state having EU external borders with both the Balkans and Turkey. Taking into considerations some of this Presidency’s priorities, we explore here the major challenges that the EU external action has to face in order to impact on stabilisation in its European vicinity, looking at both the Balkan countries and the Eastern neighbours. For that purpose, we put under perspective the effectiveness of EU past and present policies and the current state-of-play in these neighbourhing countries.

Among the Bulgarian four priorities,[i] the Western Balkans (WB) are given political prominence. The six countries of the region (the WB6) include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. If one considers their path since the end of the Yugoslav wars in 2001, tendencies of stagnation and lack of a clear deadline for enlargement prospects have hampered their approximation to the EU. These difficulties have been acknowledged by the Union by means of a new political process called the “Berlin Process”. This process has been initialled in 2014 under German initiative and it is meant to address relations with the WB6 in a new context.

The process acknowledges two of the important changes related to the multidimensional crises that the Union faces, mostly since 2011: Euroscepticism and the suspension of the enlargement agenda under Juncker’s European Commission. For that reason, the EU policies towards the WB6 focus on domestic reforms and infrastructures. The Commission has been, thus, conveying a criticised and blurred message that balances between no enlargement perspectives and the need to keep credible enlargement perspectives for the sake of stability in the region. In his State of the Union address in September 2017, Juncker gave clearer perspectives for Serbia and Montenegro, identifying the 2025 horizon has possible, given that both countries achieve the needed reforms and contribute to regional stability. A new European Commission strategy is expected to be adopted in 2018 to support “successful accession”.

In parallel to the Berlin Process, a reflection forum among experts and practitioners has been gathered to improve the enlargement perspectives of the WB6. Last year meeting occurred in Trieste, ahead of the intergovernmental conference hosted by Italy in July. The discussions underlined the lack of clarity from the EU side regarding what it ought to achieve in its relation with the Balkans, in a context of stagnation of the countries. This state-of-play is prone to create misunderstanding as the Union pursues different, although complementary, goals that range from security concerns to economic integration.[ii]

Looking East, the challenges for the EU engagement are closely related to the degradation of the relations with Russia and to the unsatisfying deliveries of the ENP in the partner countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). Although the prospects of enlargement vary considerably from one country to another, the focus today is to strengthen their “resilience”. The concept emerges as a doctrine for the whole EU external action (as stated in the Commission communication of June 2017[iii]), but it includes a specific dimension concerning the need to help the Eastern partners cope with Russian pressure.

Towards the countries of the EaP, resilience means “(…) to ensure that both the Union and its neighbouring partner countries remain free to make their own political, diplomatic and economic choices, by reducing the scope for external leverage or coercion.”[iv] The ways to ensure that kind of resilience are a key issue for the EU because the organisation faces the loss of momentum that the enlargement perspective could offer, as it happened in the Western Balkans, besides a de facto change of the geopolitical map.

However, debate about regional cooperation in the East has been focusing on the need for further differentiation among the countries, in addition to understanding the grand strategy of the Union.[v] At the moment, the Association Agreements (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) are both a strategy and a response to differentiation. On its side, Russia is proposing an integration project called the Eurasian Union. The EU’s engagement has still to find a way to dialogue with the Eurasian Union, seen as an “other EU” led by Moscow.

A top priority agenda that is common to both European neighbourhoods is visa liberalisation. The policy pursued by the EU in the WB has indeed served as a model for the partners of the EaP. Aiming at securing a gate-keeping role by third countries, Brussels expects the partners to properly implement visa facilitation and readmission agreements. The acceleration of visa free regimes with Ukraine (Georgia and Moldova) are clearly related to the deterioration of relations with Russia, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in early 2014.[vi] However, the visa suspension is always a possibility depending on major criteria such as corruption and organised crime.[vii]

Looking both South and East at the margins of the EU in 2018, many challenges pave the way towards stability and prosperity. The WB6 are confronted with stagnation although they have better and clearer enlargement perspectives as compared to the EaP countries. The Eastern partners need to improve resilience in several dimensions, in particular due to the renewed external pressure that Russia is exerting in the region. The Union acknowledges this state-of-play and it has used policies such as visa liberalisation to support transformation and resilience in these neighbourhoods (in addition to securing its external border). However, the EU offer still lacks three main assets to become a change player in these vicinities: a grand strategy, enlargement perspectives in a context of multiple internal crises and a more fruitful relation with its biggest neighbour that is Russia.

[i] The programme of the Presidency might be consulted at https://eu2018bg.bg/en (accessed 26 January 2018).

[ii] The author has participated as an expert in the Trieste Reflection Forum, 26-27 June 2017.

[iii] European Commission. 2017. JOINT COMMUNICATION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL. A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s external action {SWD(2017) 226 final}. Brussels, 7 June. Available at https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/join_2017_21_f1_communication_from_commission_to_inst_en_v7_p1_916039.pdf (accessed January 3, 2018).

[iv] Idem, p.5.

[v] The author has participated as an expert in the Eastern Partnership Reflection Forum, Minks, Belarus, 10-11 December 2017.

[vi] On the EU external governance of migration and the case of EaP countries and Russia, see Delcour, Laure and Fernandes, Sandra. 2016. “Visa liberalization processes in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood: understanding policy outcomes,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2016.1233936

[vii] On visa suspension and a comparison of the situation in the WB and the Eastern neighbourhood, see Cenusa, Denis. 2018. “New visa suspension mechanism as an additional instrument targeting corruption in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.” IPN (15 January). Available at http://ipn.md/en/special/88787 (accessed 15 January 2018).

Picture credits: Federica Mogherini participates to the EU -former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council by European External Action Service.

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