Stabilisation, resilience and security - these are the keywords of the latest of a series of European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) reviews, aiming to ‘respond to the new challenges of an evolving neighbourhood’. Such challenges increasingly result from geopolitical tensions over the Eastern Neighbourhood between the European Union (EU) and Russia, and come on top of the EU’s continuous struggle to fight corruption and promote its norms regarding human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the countries to its Eastern vicinity. The EU recognises that geopolitical competition from Russia increasingly thwarts its own policy agenda towards its neighbours. However, the ENP’s renewed focus on security, with its increased attention to information resilience and cybersecurity, has not yet proven to be capable of addressing these issues. Politically, the EU is struggling to develop a unitary and comprehensive answer to Russian assertiveness in the region. The Union constantly needs to balance between constructive engagement (e.g. through dialogue) and credible deterrence (e.g. by means of sanctions). Meanwhile, individual Member States continue to pursue bilateral policies based on their individual interests. These differences mean the EU faces a number of pressing challenges for its current and future agenda towards the East, which include coping with the Donbass conflict, extending the sanctions regime towards Russia, and finding more effective ways to give the EU’s normative disposition in the region new momentum.
The Donbass war is entering its fifth year and continues to claim casualties, hinder EU relations with Russia and thwart stability in Ukraine. Russia has an increasing interest to turn it into yet another protracted conflict to stall Ukraine’s development and the implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. In that way, Moscow tests EU commitment to restoring peace, which it considers weak. So far, however, the EU is only marginally involved in the Minsk peace process, with the OSCE, France and Germany taking active roles through the so-called Normandy format instead. Yet, the absence of this issue on the EU-wide agenda makes momentum in the peace process dependent on individual countries, who can be preoccupied by domestic political priorities, such as is now the case in Germany as a result of its elections outcomes. The absence of EU ownership of the conflict could moreover harm consensus within the EU on the issue. Russia considers the cases of Brexit and the Catalonian push for independence just as the latest examples of fragile EU unity, and is believed – although at a decentralised level – to actively pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy among European electorates and Member States.
A greater commitment from the side of the EU would not only increase the Union’s internal unity, but also enhance the international legitimacy of the peace efforts, and possibly alter the calculations of the parties involved. So far, Russia’s own calculation is that non-resolution is in its best interest. The International Peacekeeping Mission unexpectedly put forward by President Putin in September 2017 is, in the form as proposed by Moscow, nothing more than a poisoned chalice actually contributing to ‘freezing’ the conflict by legitimizing it internationally instead of settling it. Through its proposal Russia has aimed to put the ball back into the court of Ukraine, which has neglected to implement the political provisions of Minsk – i.e., local elections in the Donbass region and a special status for the Donbass in the Ukrainian constitution – arguing that military provisions should be implemented first. Russia´s and Ukraine´s contradictory understanding on the sequencing of the Minsk II Provisions has been a major reason for the current stalemate, a situation which the ´Steinmeier formula´ has sought, but not succeeded, to overcome.
An effective peacekeeping mission capable of breaking this deadlock would require a comprehensive mandate. This mandate should allow for ensuring the ceasefire and the withdrawal of the Russian military as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty over the region, while simultaneously supporting local governance and the organisation of elections. European leaders should thereby make clear to Moscow that this is also for its own benefit. After all, the prospect of carrying the costs of yet another separatist region led by semi-criminal nationalists primarily interested in rent-seeking from Moscow is not a rosy one for the Kremlin. In addition to the sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States, which continue to directly damage the Russian economy, the harm to its international status and relations with the West might lead Russia to acknowledge its interest in settlement, and agree to a wider mandate than initially proposed.
The EU has conditioned lifting its sanctions upon the implementation of the Minsk provisions, and in light of the absence of progress noted above, extended them every six months – the latest extension lasting until 31 July 2018. The initial agreement in March 2014 is largely believed to stem from a common view among the Member States on the unacceptability of the breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet, the current positions of the EU Member States on the issue are determined by a wider number of factors, including the economic harm of (counter)sanctions due to economic interdependence with Russia, geopolitical/security considerations due to a combination of geographic proximity to Russia and historical experiences, the level of dependency from Russian energy supplies, the (historic and current) political ties between their governments and Russia, as well as diverging understandings about the objectives of the sanctions regime. Geopolitical concerns lead Poland, the Baltic states and Finland to support strict sanctions, with Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark aligning with these hardliners. More moderate supporters of the sanctions regime are France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands – although, due to the MH/17 downing, the latter has in the past years taken a tougher position than before. Economic ties with Russia, but also the geopolitical risks Moscow poses, splits Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia internally. Member States that have stronger economic and political ties with Russia and oppose the prolongation of sanctions are Italy, Hungary, Austria, Greece and Cyprus. A last group of Member states is formed by countries less economically connected to and geographically more distant from Russia, comprising Malta, Ireland, Luxembourg and Belgium.
Is the rather unprecedented unity among the EU Member states under the surface starting to show the first signs of dissolution? Some developments would suggest so. Austria and the Czech Republic have in the past year seen electoral successes of right-wing parties more strongly connected to Russia. In the more critical Member States such as Hungary, the sanctions are increasingly considered ineffective while at the same time economically harming the EU itself given the countermeasures from Russia. It is important to note here that, while trade with Russia has deteriorated between 2014 and 2017, only a small fragment thereof can be attributed to sanctions, and EU exports have largely been redirected. Also, politically, the sanctions appear rather unsuccessful, given the implementation of Minsk II has not taken off yet. The broader impact of EU sanctions has been to contribute to curb the war in the Donbass and prevent Russia from escalating the conflict further. Should the sanctions be lifted as a result of a breakdown in consensus within the Union, EU credibility, leverage vis-à-vis Russia and perceived commitment to international law would be highly damaged, and the future effectiveness of the instrument of sanctions harmed. Without further progress in the Donbass, the EU should therefore maintain the sanctions, and continue to highlight that lifting them is fully dependent on the implementation of Minsk II. It should thereby signal in the run-up to a UN Security Council decision that the installment of a comprehensive UN peacekeeping mission in the Donbass would be the best way forward to achieve such progress.
The current low-point in EU-Russia relations has strong implications for the EU approach towards its Eastern Neighbourhood. Although entrenched in the treaties as a policy framework aimed at spreading European norms and values, the failure in the past years to achieve the objectives of the consolidation of democracy and elimination of endemic corruption has forced the EU to take a more classic and pragmatic foreign-policy approach. Apart from the EU’s underestimation of Russian influence in the region, the neighbourhood countries themselves have proven to be less inclined to adhere to EU norms than initially thought. Norm spreading in the fields of good governance and the Rule of Law, through working with ENP-country governing elites, faces harsh realities. It goes against the vested interests of those very same elites, who have – e.g. in the case of Moldova – often proven to be pro-European in name only. While the latest ENP review acknowledges that countries may not be willing to develop closer relations with the EU, and has taken a pragmatic turn more focused on EU interests than norms, the EU’s normative discourse has remained. However, continuing such discourse is – under the current policies – obsolete and upholding it only harms EU credibility. The EU can hardly be regarded as a normative power, not only because of the failure of its policies to deliver, but also given internal developments such as the handling of the refugee crisis and EU Member States themselves being caught up in undemocratic reforms. Hence the call for an honest discourse on the objectives and more in line with actual policies is justified.
The EU should first acknowledge that its idea that ´the ENP is not aimed against any country´ does not match with current realities. Fact of the matter is that Russia perceives the ENP to threaten its sphere of influence, and continues to employ economic, political as well as security ties to influence neighbourhood countries, and effectively so (e.g. withholding Armenia from signing an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU in 2013). The EU has no effective response, neither politically nor policy-wise. The ENP’s renewed security focus fits the description of ‘too late, too little´. It has caused some authors to go as far as to conclude that the ENP is in suspended animation. Given the complexity of the challenges at hand, it would be unfair to hold the EU fully accountable for the current state of the neighbourhood. However, as the past decade has shown, achieving the ENP’s normative objectives is in any case impossible through working with the neighbourhood country’s elites. Rewarding them with partial EU integration in return for reforms will not accomplish the development towards sustainable and resilient democracies, as such reforms mostly go against the elites’ entrenched interests. Pursuing this strategy has caused discursive changes at best, as a side-effect spurring suspicion in the Russian Federation of seeking to pull the Neighbourhood into the EU’s own sphere of influence. If the EU wants to become serious about its normative ambitions, it should instead focus on creating conditions for societies to develop themselves. Indeed, the latest ENP reforms have brought increased attention to societal resilience. However, an overhaul greater than the past reforms of the ENP is needed, placing societal resilience, an honest and open discourse, as well as tailor-made approaches to individual neighbourhood societies at the heart of its considerations. Such an overhaul should include asking the question of whether a neighbourhood-wide policy framework like the current ENP is compatible with the EU’s normative aspirations.
About the authors
Wouter Zweers is a junior researcher at the Clingendael Institute, where he focuses on a wide range of EU-related issues, notably EU foreign policy and the European Neighbourhood Policy.