Testing the Transformative Power of the European Union

Why is it that some countries have demonstrated progress, while others have remained mostly immune to the EU’s leverage?

Leaders of the European Union and its Eastern neighboring countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—will meet in Vilnius next week to assess the closeness of their relationships. Countries that followed the EU prescription to reform will be offered political association and economic integration with the Union, while countries that didn’t comply with its requirements will keep distance. Only two out of the six countries—Moldova and Georgia—are expected to upgrade their relations with the EU at the Vilnius Summit.

Though the EU offered similar incentives to partners to transform, some countries managed to reform and others remained immune to EU seduction. How could the EU do a better job in democratizing its neighbors?

The trajectories of the six countries moving towards the EU are rather uneven. Countries continue to demonstrate varying levels of commitment to reform and performance. Remarkably, the 2013 European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries registers positive advancement for all six countries in relation to the EU, with a few exceptions.

  • Moldova remains the top reformer in the region and is the closest to meeting EU standards.
  • Georgia is the second best performer and made the biggest advancement towards implementing democratic reforms over the last year.
  • Ukraine, in overall third position, fails to translate its close relation with the EU into greater similarities to the EU system.
  • Armenia is catching up fast with Ukraine and showed good progress in many areas last year.
  • Azerbaijan, the second worst performer, has intensified political and economic ties with the EU, yet shows no progress in meeting EU standards.
  • Belarus remains the furthest from the EU when it comes to observing European values and standards.

The progress is no doubt below the high expectations raised at the launch of the Eastern Partnership Initiative five years ago. Insufficient political will among governing elites still hinders important reforms.

The Index measurement of “Deep and Sustainable Democracy,” the concept which is the basis of the EU reward system, shows that Moldova, Georgia and Armenia have made most progress on democratic reforms over the last two years. These countries received additional funds from the EU to encourage further advances. Ukraine registered no changes in the overall quality of democracy. The situation in Azerbaijan deteriorated which makes the country look more similar to Belarus when it comes to cracking down on political dissent.

In order to encourage transformation, the EU provides the same incentives to all partner countries: political association with the EU, greater access to the EU market through Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA), and closer social ties through the offer of visa-free travel for their citizens.

The EU has had some success in achieving positive changes that otherwise would not have been embraced by local politicians. Moldova adopted an anti-discrimination law and Ukraine created a national preventive mechanism against torture. Scrutiny of elections by the EU and OSCE in Georgia and Armenia has helped to improve candidates’ access to media coverage during the campaign. However, EU criticism did not prevent Ukrainian and Belarusian authorities from manipulating the elections and the arrests of journalists, bloggers and political opponents in Azerbaijan.

So why is it that some countries have demonstrated progress, while others have remained mostly immune to the EU’s leverage? The EU’s ability to trigger reforms crucially depends on domestic factors. In those countries where survival of the regime is at stake (Belarus, Azerbaijan and, to a certain extent, Ukraine), the EU’s current offer of political and economic engagement did not act as sufficient incentive.

The Vilnius Summit fails to anchor irrevocably the Eastern European countries in their trajectory towards European integration. The EU expected to conclude Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with at least four partner countries in order to engage them in substantial regulatory alignment for many years after the Summit. At the end of the day only Moldova and Georgia will initial such agreements next week and will sign them in autumn 2014.

The conclusion of trade agreements with the EU would have prevented Russia from enticing the former satellite republics into its alternative Customs Union and the future Eurasian Union. Unfortunately the Armenian president was the first one to succumb to Russian pressure when he announced his intention to join the Russian-led project shortly after concluding the negotiations on DCFTA with the EU. Yesterday the Ukrainian government followed suit and rejected the EU offer of signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius. It cited national security concerns as the main reason for backing down and the need to restore instead its trade ties with Russia.

There is too little achieved for the Vilnius Summit to be considered a milestone. The EU will have to rethink its approach to the region after the Summit. For the EU to increase its transformative power the member states will have to consider using their most powerful transformative instrument - the perspective for a country to accede.

The EU should look at each individual country and offer a merit-based membership perspective rather than geography-based perspective for the entire region, taking into consideration the ambitions of each country, their capacity to adjust to the EU and proven track record of reforms. This approach will reinforce the performance-based differentiation of the EU’s neighborhood policy.

In the meantime the reforming governments in the Eastern European countries must do a better job of helping their supporters inside the EU to argue for possible EU membership by providing frequent, consistent examples of their readiness for accession. The Open Society Foundations and its partners will continue tracking the record and the trajectory of each country in the years to come.

3 Comments

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Thanks for the article. Interesting analysis. While I fully agree with the premises, I regard the answer (namely, the perspective to accede) as both unsustainable and unnecessary for the coming years, at least with regard to Ukraine. 1/I'm afraid EU's citizens will disregard new candidates, especially after what just happened, and an extension of the EU to a highly populated state like Ukraine is unlikely to be achievable and popular while our institutions are so weak. Extensions now would only sound as off the mark foreign policies. 2/We don't need to heighten the stake in Ukraine. A majority is already convinced and willing to sign the agreement, then follows the process. Then, I would rather insist upon the responsabilities of Russia, a topic slightly mentionned, but a key topic when one consideres the last minute U turns of Armenia and Ukraine. I suggest most efforts should be dedicated to removing the economic dependencies with Russia and making the pivot to UE easier. Hearts are already convinced.

I appreciate your valuable points, Emeric. My suggestion for a formal acknowledgement of membership perspective was not to be included on the agenda of the Vilnius Summit, but rather for consideration at the Riga Summit in 2015. In no way nowadays Ukraine deserves such an acknowledgement. More, I doubt that even Moldova and Georgia, the two most reforming countries, have done enough yet to get such a reward.
From the legal point of view all EaP countries have already their right to EU membership acknowledged in the Article 49 of the Treaty on EU. Any European State which respects the principles of freedom, democracy and respect for the rule of law may apply to become a member of the Union. The article is non-discriminatory - it doesn't say that only small countries may accede, while the populous ones, even they share the EU values, may not. The only argument that the EU leaders may still use in order to prevent (or rather delay) formal membership applications of EaP countries is that none of them is yet close to meeting the EU standards on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If and when this happens however, possibly in 2015 for some countries or much later for others, the EU leaders should obey the EU Treaty and apply case by case its Article 49.

I missed your answer and just read it know. I fully agree with your statement and appreciate the enlightening details you added in your reply.

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