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Whose neighbour?

Sweden and Poland's "Eastern partnership" re-energizes the internal EU contest over Neighbourhood Policy

28.05.2008 · Daniel Grotzky

Eastern Partnership

On May 26th Poland and Sweden were to present a paper "Eastern partnership" to the Foreign Ministers of the EU meant to reinvigorate the EU's policy towards Ukraine, Belarus Moldova and the Caucasus states. The proposal, a draft of which is publicly available, calls for deeper bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the EU and its Eastern neighbours. Areas where the initiators would like to see more activity include a push toward a visa-free regime, a free trade area, increased efforts at people-to-people contacts, as well as a reform agenda based on similar benchmarks as those of the European Union’s integration process.

Aimed at countering French attempts to shift the block's foreign policy focus toward the Mediterranean and pushing for the further integration of Ukraine into the EU, the initiative also attempts to close a gap between the Northern dimension and the EU's Black Sea Synergy which currently marks Belarus as a blank spot on Europe's strategic map. The authoritarian state would be able to take part at a technical and expert level.

The authors seem to have deliberately made the proposal modest, suggesting neutrality for the EU budget and not calling for any additional institutions to avoid the fate of Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union which was watered down extensively by the Commission recently. But despite this professed modesty the "Eastern partnership" highlights an ongoing conflict within the EU over what direction policy toward the block's neighbouring states should take. In that sense the initiative is more of a contribution to a debate over policy than a substantial reform proposal.

Undermining the Common Neighbourhood Policy?

The EU Commission has reacted sceptically to the proposal because it threatens to undermine the common European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), drafted in 2004 to address the relations between the EU and its neighbours. ENP has long been under fire for not differentiating between the states of Eastern Europe and the countries of the Mediterranean. In particular Ukraine wants a membership perspective and dislikes being served by the same policy framework that includes Morocco – a state that has been rejected for membership on the basis of not being a European country. Both Poland and the Baltic states have been among the staunchest supporters of treating "European neighbours" differently than "neighbours of Europe".

The Commission had already launched a paper "Strengthening the European Neighbourhood Policy" in December 2006. This was meant to adjust for some of the weaknesses to date by allowing for linkages to regional initiatives and increasing the incentives for cooperation toward ENP states. But it continued to treat Eastern and Southern neighbours the same. Subsequently the Commission has also offered closer cooperation to the four ENP countries that had made the greatest progress in working through their "action plans" with the EU – namely Ukraine, Moldova, Israel and Morocco.

Wider debate over wider Europe

The Commission's proposals obviously have not calmed the proponents of a more active EU-policy towards the East. Last year's German presidency had already called for an "ENP Plus" to deepen relations with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus. Unlike the Swedish-Polish proposal however, "ENP Plus" was to be one of various pillars of a "new Ostpolitik" that was also meant to include a strategic partnership with Russia and an EU-strategy toward Central Asia. Unlike the Central Asia strategy adopted in June 2007, "ENP Plus" never got off the ground as Germany rather concentrated on bringing the EU reform treaty back on track. Since then the ENP debate focused largely on the French idea of a Mediterranean Union which was aimed at preventing the accession of further EU-members (read: Turkey), instead of increasing their chances (read: Ukraine).

Dealing with or without Russia

Another large topic that had stood in the way of a discussion over an Eastern dimension of ENP has been Russia. It can be no mere coincidence that the Eastern initiative comes shortly after a one and a half year stalemate over re-negotiations for a new treaty with Russia was overcome after first Poland, then Lithuania (after brokering by Poland and Sweden) dropped their vetoes. The "Eastern partnership" would allow for an extension of projects to Russia on a case-by-case basis. The question over Russia has become much more sensitive since an Eastern dimension of the ENP was last discussed, the debate over Ukrainian and Georgian NATO accession being a case in point. The initiative is careful in this regard, it stays clear of directly mentioning the "frozen conflicts" in the European neighbourhood in which Russia is deeply involved. Previous policy drafts for an Eastern direction, in particular from Poland, and Lithuania's conditions for lifting its negotiation veto had called for the EU to take a stronger role in these conflicts. An indirect reference to Russia is however visible as the paper calls for cooperation in the field of "democracy, common values, rule of law".

The end of a "one-size-fits-all" policy

The Swedish-Polish initiative is unlikely to substantially change EU foreign policy in the short term. Neither France nor Germany want a debate over Ukrainian EU-membership. But it does signify two very crucial developments for ENP.

Firstly it shows that the role of "Eastern policy motor" – at least for the moment – has shifted from Germany to an alliance of smaller states. Sweden (9 million inhabitants) and Poland (38.5 million) are not among the block's traditional large players. The initiative is likely to be carried on the agenda by the two chairmanships of 2009: the Czech Republic and Sweden itself. Germany supports the initiative in principle, but does not want a debate over new members. The proposal might also reflect some disappointment with the inability of Germany to truly push its "ENP Plus" agenda during its presidency last year.

Secondly the initiative demonstrates that a "one-size-fits-all" ENP will not find acceptance among the member states. Instead the EU is faced with a flurry of schemes for regional cooperation. Eastern Partnership now might join the Barcelona Process, the Northern Dimension and the Black Sea Synergy. When describing the ENP former EU Commission President Romano Prodi coined the term of a "ring of friends" around the Union. But rather than a ring, the ENP is resembling more and more a "chain" of various interlinked regions. Rather than see its concept under attack, the European Commission should see this as an opportunity to rethink ENP. ENP must be developed into a framework into which both bilateral relations with member countries, as well as the various regional initiatives can be embedded and receive the adequate differentiation.

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