EU Policy Towards the Eastern Neighbors: Lessons Learned About How to Improve Governance

Viorel Ursu, senior policy officer at the Open Society Institute–Brussels, looks at the lessons learned from EU efforts to build a coherent policy towards its Eastern neighbors during the last five years.

Five years of EU efforts to build a coherent policy towards its Eastern neighbours have produced mixed results. While economic and trade relations have improved with most partners, the governance of those countries is still murky. One of the reasons why EU policy has not improved governance as effectively as it did in the case of enlargement is the imperfect system of conditionality.

It is vital for the EU to increase its incentives for countries, for example through visa liberalisation; provide clear benchmarks and deadlines for implementation of its conditions; enforce the system of monitoring the implementation; and co-opt local civil society.

A few lessons are clear from previous efforts:

1. Use wide-ranging and strict conditionality for visa liberalisation: To achieve change through conditionality, the EU has to increase the incentives. Since the membership perspective is not on the table for the moment, the EU has to use well its second-best carrot in these countries - visa-free travel for their citizens in the Schengen area. This incentive will bring two-fold results: if the EU makes visa liberalisation strictly conditional on timely and substantive implementation of commitments regarding judicial reform, border management, data protection, non-discrimination etc., this will bring concrete results, as shown by the recent visa liberalisation process in the Balkans.

A further benefit would then ensue as visa-free travel would bring the population into contact with European norms. There is a growing middle class in the Eastern countries that is keen to visit Paris and Budapest, but is only welcome to visit Moscow without going through humiliating visa procedures. For details about the visa procedures, see the report Changes in Visa Policies of the EU Member States, by the Stefan Batory Foundation.

Another lesson learned from previous efforts is that a lack of clear-cut cause-effect links between conditionality and outcomes has a deleterious effect. This is why a clear and benchmarked roadmap for visa liberalisation would be more effective than numerous meetings of a "visa dialogue."

2. Provide clear commitments and tangible benchmarks: Many reform-minded governments from the East complain that EU conditions and demands are too general, that the Union does not provide benchmarking and that deadlines are not enforced. The main instruments used by the EU as roadmaps for change are the Action Plans. However, these roadmaps are not well defined - the destination is not clear, and the directions are vague, especially as regards improving governance and human rights. The new generation of Action Plans - Association Agenda - fails to provide clearer guidance. A new kind of document is needed - a detailed guidebook with benchmarks, or at least more detailed implementation tools where the EU should state clearly what its "democracy acquis" comprises of.

3. Increase Commission capacity to monitor and report progress: The monitoring process is also formalistic and superficial, and ill-suited to guide the countries. Governments have learned how to circumvent EU criticism by formally adopting required legislation, but not enforcing its actual implementation. EU statements on non-implementation remain very cautious and no punishment or other potential consequences are mentioned. A better monitoring system would require greatly increased capacity of the European Commission and the EU Delegations on the ground.

4. Encourage informal competition of partners: Thanks to the informal competition among the partner countries, governments are sensitive to EU assessments. The EU should use the opportunity of growing pressure from civil society in the Eastern countries to improve governance. The EU's annual allocation of the ENP Governance Facility is a good tool to rank countries and benchmark performance; however the EU is shy to utilise it for communication purposes. Greater publicity of EU rewards and criticism would bring increased domestic support to reform-minded governments, and also reinforce public scrutiny and public pressure on those governments that are lagging behind.

5. Prioritise constitutional and electoral reforms: Although the rhetoric of the partner governments is all in favour of European integration, local political elites move away from democratic reforms whenever they endanger the government's power base. At the same time, the EU rarely insists on concrete conditions related to crucial constitutional and electoral reforms. The examples of Ukraine and Moldova show that unless the EU pushes and helps to resolve fundamental issues of state power, fair electoral rules and the independence of judiciary, efforts to improve governance will continue to fail.

6. Support local civil society to hold governments accountable: Governing elites have procrastinated on the democratic reforms recommended by the EU as long as their cost-benefit calculations have shown the risk of losing power in a fair electoral system. To increase pressure on the government to adopt crucial reforms, the EU should co-opt local civil society as a credible partner. The EU's top-down approach should be complemented by a bottom-up push that could raise governmental accountability as well societal awareness.

A positive example is the EU's support for monitoring media coverage during the 2009 elections in Moldova, which put pressure on the Central Election Commission to intervene on several occasions when the rules were ignored by the government-controlled media. Unfortunately only around 2% of EU funding going to the Eastern neighbours supports the efforts of civil society organisations. (This is the average figure for 2007-2009; it varies from 0.37% of EU funding in Ukraine, 2% in Moldova; 4.3% in Azerbaijan and Georgia, 5.8% in Belarus, to 7.3% in Armenia.)

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