Europe Must Take a Wider View of the Future

The Wider Europe Initiative, launched recently by the European Commission to manage relations with its neighbors, looks great on paper. But the plan will be doomed to obscurity if it is allowed to moulder in the European bureaucracy.

It is up to European Union members to rally behind this promising idea. If realized, the initiative—now also called the New Neighborhood policy—would help shape countries on the expanded EU’s eastern and southern frontiers into well-governed states in step with EU values.

In this respect, the EU’s most powerful tool of influence is the prospect of membership. So far it has worked wonders. But the current problems with EU enlargement make it unrealistic to hold out this prospect except to those already under consideration: Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and possibly a few states from the former Yugoslavia.

No country on Europe’s eastern and southern borders—from Morocco in the south to Ukraine and Belarus in the east—is ready to join the EU. But the Wider Europe Initiative could prepare them for closer association and, in some cases, eventual membership.

The Wider Europe proposal, which recognizes that the EU’s relations with its neighbors are inherently asymmetric, must avoid the pitfalls of the stability pact. Even before the planÆs general framework is defined, the Commission should think about adding more substance to the action plans currently being worked on for countries deemed top priority. Joint working groups should be set up to monitor the action plans.

The EU should use incentives to promote the democratic development of bordering countries without seeking reciprocal concessions, incentives that could be withdrawn if expectations are not met.

In the east, Wider Europe is Russia’s backyard. The EU cannot entice those countries with membership any time soon, whereas Russia is only too happy to lure them into a reconstituted empire. To counteract Russia’s pull, the EU must offer greater access to Europe’s common market, more favorable visa regimes, job and immigration opportunities, and access to capital, cultural contacts and technical assistance. Admittedly, the EU has not budgeted for spending on the Wider Europe initiative before 2007; but it can find the money if desired. Giving real life to the initiative would help build cohesion in Europe and would offer an attractive alternative to the current U.S. policy of spreading democracy by military means.

I have established a network of foundations dedicated to building open societies in countries of the former Soviet Union. They are doing on a small scale what the Wider Europe Initiative should do on a large one. They help promote democratic development by supporting civil society and working with governments when possible. The less receptive the government, the more important the support of civil society becomes. The same principle must guide the EU; non-partisan players—representatives of civil society—should be part of every action plan.

With this in mind, the EU needs to intensify engagement in the Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Elections are pending in Ukraine and Moldova, and abuses that often accompany elections are increasing. The prospect of substantial rewards might persuade the authorities to curb such abuses. Georgia has just undergone a peaceful revolution and should be brought into the initiative.

While the Georgian experience is unique, it has made neighboring regimes nervous. They see no advantage in strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions. Carrots and sticks might help to convince them.

Belarus may seem beyond hope. But the outrageous behavior of President Alexander Lukashenko could provoke the unexpected—a change of regime. EU members protested when Lukashenko tried to sack the rector of the European Humanities University and this, among other developments, has weakened the president’s position.

Russia, meanwhile, will not foster positive change in the region. After a chaotic period, the restored Russian state is shedding the few attributes of an open society it had acquired. Having failed to provide effective assistance, the west can exert little influence. The only way is to strengthen economic ties while ceasing to treat Russia as a nascent democracy. RussiaÆs latest incarnation underlines how the EU should be more active in neighboring countries where political orientation remains in the balance.

Add your voice