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Time to Dismantle the Bloc

A former Romanian foreign minister pleads the case for more narrowly focused bilateral ties between Brussels and “Eastern Europe.” by Mircea Geoana 13 February 2009 Eastern Europe is today home to more regional, bilateral, or multilateral cooperation arrangements than anywhere else on the continent. They span the European Neighborhood Policy, the Black Sea Synergy, the Eastern Partnership, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation organization, the Forum for Black Sea Dialogue and Partnership, and the GUAM economic grouping of former Soviet republics. So many is probably only natural in a region that has long been an epicenter of tectonic changes in the world order, as well as a hotbed of political instability, illicit trafficking, and economic difficulty. Yet for all these initiatives, the region’s problems not only remain unresolved but seem to be getting worse by the day.

Which means we need to ask ourselves whether all these cooperation frameworks and organizations are not just a poor substitute for genuine involvement and efficiency. The more these initiatives multiply, the more worried we are entitled to be that money is being wasted and only a few results obtained.

The reason for their lack of effectiveness has never been ill-will on the EU’s part, but rather a lack of clarity regarding its objectives in relation to its eastern neighbors. This is why the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) has to a considerable extent been a sad disappointment right from the start. It began badly by placing Ukraine and Georgia in the same framework as Jordan and Morocco, as that in itself was a discouraging signal to those countries that aspired to EU membership. The emergence of structures like the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, Eastern Partnership, and Black Sea Synergy has since shown the need for differentiating between countries on the basis of what one might call geo-political criteria.

The ENP demanded painful reforms from countries like Ukraine, whose transition from Soviet communism to democracy has been an almost unending and Sisyphean task, putting a great deal of pressure on its people while failing to deliver palpable benefits that could be translated into political support. The result has not just been a lack of sympathy towards the EU at the time, but it even gave oxygen to Leonid Kuchma’s troubled administration – and that could happen again today, giving indirect backing to pro-Russian forces.

Throughout much of Eastern Europe, the once-enthusiastic mood on EU enlargement is shifting towards a more reserved approach. The EU itself is concerned with redefining its own identity, while last August’s Georgian war has made it clear that Europe can no longer turn a blind eye to sources of potential conflict in the region. All of which means that differentiation between the countries of the region is more imperative than ever. When the EU reconsiders its relations with its eastern neighbors in the light of its own renewed dialogue with Russia, Brussels must not forget that only a short while ago, the promise was held out of EU membership to some and of NATO membership to others. We therefore now risk seriously disappointing these states, so that once they sense a weakening of interest they may begin to turn away from the EU and NATO and pursue policies that could quite quickly lead to a deterioration of the region’s already fragile situation.

The way to underline the West’s seriousness is certainly not to produce more declarations of support. What is needed is concrete proof that the EU intends to keep on upgrading its relations, including in some cases by setting the premises to extend EU membership when appropriate.

This means that the EU should start by acknowledging that each of these countries has its own legitimate interests, and it should also clarify its own objectives in Eastern Europe. While Ukraine and Moldova have very realistic EU membership perspectives, Georgia is extremely important from a geo-strategic point of view, so priority should be given to securing its energy transport infrastructure. Georgia should also have a privileged partnership with the European Union that includes free trade and visa facilitation, and at the same time continue its reform program as a way toward further integration with NATO. As to Azerbaijan, it is vital to the EU’s future energy independence, so cooperation in that area is essential, as is securing of the oil pipelines on Belarusian territory. And although the EU should devote its resources primarily to these areas, it should also continue to work with organizations like the OSCE and the Council of Europe to encourage democratic human rights and free-market reforms in Azerbaijan and Belarus, and in Armenia too, whose stability is equally important. The current economic crisis offers a good opportunity for the EU to show its capacity to provide assistance whenever and wherever needed, now that so many of the countries in its eastern neighborhood are being severely affected.

The lessons learned by the EU in the western Balkans show that differentiated treatment yields better results than a wholesale approach. Cooperation within the considerable number of different organizations that offered bridges between Balkan states, just as in Eastern Europe today, was gradually replaced by bilateral arrangements pursuing highly specific goals. This is what enabled Croatia to progress so fast toward EU membership, and permitted Albania to [soon] become a NATO member, with Macedonia despite its disputed name issue, hard on its heels. Montenegro has also received valuable support while introducing important reforms and signing its association agreement with the EU. Serbia has been given the EU’s backing, the Kosovo problem was dealt with separately (for better or worse), and Bosnia, whose stability-related issues are also delicate, has also enjoyed strong support from the EU. And while some of these problems have not been wholly resolved, the EU’s bilateral approaches avoided the mistake of keeping some behind while others were catching up, and at the same time established a positive trend in the region in which the example of the more successful was soon followed by others.

It is crucial, therefore, that practical initiatives by the EU should take into account the situations of individual countries with their own distinct interests. The bilateral track yields maximum effectiveness, while the multilateral track should be reserved for “soft” power projects such as transport and communications infrastructure, environment and energy, or police and border cooperation. The latter become very important once conditions are ripe for EU membership, and they also contribute significantly to fighting problems like trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism.

The latest European initiative – the Eastern Partnership proposed by Poland and Sweden, which is in the course of being adopted by the EU as a policy framework – needs clarification if it is to avoid overlapping with the Black Sea Synergy. More concrete EU assistance is preferable to just the multiplication of projects and structures. And it is worth pointing out that the multiplicity of bilateral and multilateral organizations in the region betrays a regrettable habit of competition rather than cooperation among the main actors which leads to counterproductive overlapping and confusion. To avoid this, the Eastern Partnership should give preference to bilateral projects, not least because that would prevent Ukraine from feeling that it is being wrongly placed in the same structure as Belarus, which it would then fear resulting in inadequate levels of support. Energetic practical steps and dialogues that are less impersonal are needed to compensate for the distrust between countries in the region and in relation to the EU. Regional projects, to which the Black Sea Synergy, Eastern Partnership, and European Neighborhood Policy are welcome additions, can help forge a more positive climate of cooperation in Eastern Europe – a region which certainly cannot yet be seen as a single bloc.
Mircea Geoana is the chairman of the Romanian Senate and president of the Romanian Social Democratic Party.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of
Europe’s World, an independent policy journal based in Brussels. Reprinted with permission.
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