The EU should provide space and possibility for the front-running states to advance in their European aspirations. At the same time, differentiation based on ‘more for more’ should not simply become a byword for rewarding the state apparatus, but we must also ensure to provide space for the aspirations of the civil society.
The globalised world, as we know it, is facing unprecedented challenges. In a way, the lack of COVID-19 tests was symbolic of the failure of globalisation to stand the resilience test.
The pandemic and its effects have laid bare the immense loopholes and fractures in its basic construction, as well as in our way of conducting foreign policy, not least in our immediate neighbourhood.
In the aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Western think tanks and analysts started to gradually point to the dangers of the growing challenge of Russia and China, and the ability of Russia to interfere into our internal affairs – including elections (the very core of our value system and democracy) but also the growing corrosive influence of Chinese investment in the EU, in our neighbourhood and beyond.
Crucially, it has revealed that authoritarian regimes are taking advantage of our deflection from the value base which underpins our democracies, weakening our internal resilience as well as credibility in external action.
The softened language pointing to Chinese propaganda in the EUvsDisinfo report or the unilateral assent of the Head of the EU Delegation to China, Nicolas Chapuis, to the Chinese censorship of the EU ambassadors’ letter published are examples on one side of the coin.
Selectively turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and other autocracies as well as Russia’s criminal business networks operating Western capital, or the role of the Cypriot-based businesses in the money laundering schemes of the PrivatBank and the related struggle of the Ukrainian parliament to soften the impact of this crime on its people and pass the so-called “Anti-Kolomoisky” law exemplify the other side of the coin.
These two sides of the same coin show how far our moral failures threaten not only our own democracies but also our declared determination to support pro-democratic changes in our neighbourhood and beyond.
The current crisis has exposed that our external action often undermines both the reputation of the Union as a norm-setter and its ability to act as a respected strategic actor on the global stage, which in turn is exploited by authoritarian regimes. The EU’s deviation from a norm setter is captured also in the language of its policy papers as it lately uses rather the term norm entrepreneur.
Ring of instability
The EU’s 2016 Global Strategy to a certain extent already confirmed this trend, failing to live up to the values stipulated in Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty. Instead, it has prioritised resilience based on stability, which all too often became a by-word for accommodating authoritarian regimes and engaging in double standards.
The Eastern Partnership, but also the broader Neighbourhood Policy is one area where this has been visible. In fact, the events in our neighbourhood that have turned it from a ‘ring of friends’ to a ring of instability, have only made us retreat ever further (as the Global Strategy demonstrates) into our false quest for stability while also ironically resulting in a lack of coherent and consistent strategy, or even in competing strategies as in the case of Russia and China and the countries of the Eastern Partnership.
If the EU leaders cannot realise that our values do not hinder our policies, but policies that ignore values do, the less we can compete with authorities regimes like Russia and China who manages to influence the public opinion of citizens at home as well as abroad and undermine democratic governance.
Therefore, if we are serious about building the resilience of states and societies in our neighbourhood and beyond, then this requires us to bring back the much-needed values and consistency into our external action, diminishing the threats to our own societies as well as that of the people in the neighbourhood countries.
It also means being less complacent, and more creative with our instruments and methodology, and more coherent in value-based policies.
Logic of competition
Firstly, there is a necessity to think more strategically and provide greater coherence between our values, and domestic and external policies. For example, by exposing and addressing the presence of Russian “laundromats” in our capitals or of corrupt projects like the Nord Stream 2, we would reduce our own vulnerabilities as well as those of our neighbours.
Similarly, instead of the imagined compromises possible with Russia, while it continues to pursue an undeclared conflict in Ukraine and frozen conflicts elsewhere in the region, we must not be afraid to embrace ‘the logic of competition’ while supporting partners such as Ukraine and Georgia.
Furthermore, the significant economic weight of the EU, US and other democratic allies need to be better coordinated to push back against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, rather than continue with our illusion of cooperating with the BRI while it is used to spread its corrosive influence.
Secondly, it is correct that local ownership and differentiation based on a ‘more for more’ approach must be at the heart of our approach towards the EaP. There is indeed a need to provide a more ambitious space for cooperation for those desiring it. In this respect, the Association Agreements (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine provide an obvious opportunity for more ambitious relations with the three countries.
Yet, this needs to be done by more than declarations and ensure gradual access to the Single Market, especially given that statistics already show the EU as the countries’ main trading partner. Moreover, it shouldn’t just be EU companies that reap the benefits of the three countries’ opening up of their economies, but that access to the Single Market should be set up in order to help to stimulate domestic economic growth and prosperity.
On the political level, we need to involve the countries in the Commission’s comitology procedures as is the case of the EEA/EFTA countries, but also include their representatives to participate in the meetings of the European Council’s committees and working groups.
Such an approach would allow policy-makers to better understand the internal EU decision-making and, indeed, feel greater inclusion in the community processes. The case of the 2004 enlargement countries has shown that such process is invaluable.
Civil society as a bedrock
Thirdly, however, while such steps should be seen as tailor-made approaches that respond to the countries’ level of ambition within the EaP structure, we must ensure that they do not de facto lead to the creation of a separate structure or lead to the neglect of the other three countries.
In this respect, this also opens up a question on who ought to do ‘more’ to get ‘more’. The COVID-19 pandemic is in many respects a testimony to the importance of civil society as a bedrock of any functioning democracy. Indeed, even in an authoritarian state like Belarus, the importance of a lively civil society has been highlighted as crucial in mobilising and alleviating gaps that the state apparatus is unable or perhaps even unwilling to fill.
In this sense, if we are to take the ‘more for more’ approach and apply it to the civil society rather than simply the state level, then a more complex picture of who is or isn’t a front-runner applies.
The pandemic has exposed the continued developments in the Belarusian society that have been visible for the past few years. The admirable self-mobilisation, such as the ‘people’s quarantine’, and other spontaneous grass-root initiatives to slow the spread of the pandemic coupled with visible frustration with the authorities’ lethargic response and increasing repression ahead of the presidential elections, has led to what the Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatski called the ‘melting of the concrete’ between the society and the regime.
The EU, therefore, needs to refine its understanding of differentiation, to ensure that our relations with the EaP countries are not simply guided by the ambition (or the lack of it) of the state institutions, but also by the needs and aspirations of the populace.
The former would be responding to the 2016 Global strategy, the latter to more a genuine approach that is sensitive to the needs on the ground and a more genuine approach to building resilience from below, rather than merely upholding a false sense of stability from above.
In this sense, the pandemic offers an opportunity for the EU to connect with a truly genuine civil society in the EaP countries rather than simply continuing to rely on professional NGOs often limited to bigger cities, let alone governments who, as was the case with Moldova, all too often portray themselves as ‘pro-European’ to benefit from EU finances while pretending to engage in reforms.
It is, therefore, an opportunity to move beyond the old cliché of working with ‘pro-European’ forces and support and indeed touch the hearts of a much broader part of the civil society by providing equipment, but also increasing our efforts at re-granting, which is of crucial importance in reaching out and supporting small local initiatives.
Where possible, we must also engage with church-based organisations which for too long have been ignored in our democracy support programmes and which, as in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, continue to be exploited by the Kremlin to discredit the West.
Furthermore, cross-border mobility remains essential. The visa-free regime with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as visa facilitation agreement with Belarus which comes into effect this July, are much welcomed, but some of the highest numbers of applications for Schengen visa anywhere in the world continue to come from Belarusian citizens (645,722 applications in 2019), coupled with very low refusal rates (0.3 per cent in 2019).
Therefore, beyond the current pandemic, it will be crucial to also provide a visa-free regime for the citizens of Belarus.
While the current EU conditionality on visa liberalisation would not permit a visa-free regime (given that the Belarusian authorities would not be able to fulfil the Block 4 conditions on human rights in the Visa Liberalisation Action Plans), we must reconsider our approach and utilise the possibility of visa-free travel to support and engage with the Belarusian society, rather than holding people-to-people contact hostage to undemocratic practices of the Belarusian government.
The Belarusian society has proved that it deserves the same benefits as the citizens of the three associated countries – while, as in the case of the intensifying repression shown by the Belarusian regime (already worse than in 2010), we must not be afraid to use targeted sanctions against individuals, groups and entities engaging in human rights abuses, or to suspend all financial support to the authorities so that it is not used by the regime to legitimise its position, especially now, before the elections.
True to our values
It is absolutely crucial that we provide space and possibility for the front-running states to advance in their European aspirations. At the same time, differentiation based on ‘more for more’ should not simply become a byword for rewarding the state apparatus, but we must also ensure to provide space for the aspirations of the civil society.
That means being more creative with our instruments and methodology, but also ensuring that we remain true to our values while fostering local ownership by supporting those most in need, and recognising the bravery and resolve of the countless unsung heroes that form the heart of civil society and, indeed, of their countries’ future.
Moreover, remaining true to our values will weaken the corrosive influence of Russia, China and other authoritarian actors, fostering and supporting those without which free and democratic societies are impossible.
It is not simply a question of winning the ‘battle of narratives’, but ensuring that our words and deeds match up and that we deliver a consistent value-based foreign policy that strengthens the natural resilience of our own democracies and supports the efforts of those who strive towards it.
Miriam Lexmann is a Member of the European Parliament (EPP/Slovakia) and member of the Advisory Board, GCRF COMPASS Project.
Igor Merheim-Eyre is an Advisor to Miriam Lexmann MEP and a Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre (University of Kent) and GCRF COMPASS Project