The ‘reporting revolution’ in enlargement reports: will it help overcome ‘enlargement fatigue’?

The European Commission released its updated strategy and reports on the progress of candidate and aspiring states from the Western Balkans on 10 November 2015. The considerable changes in approach and even language of the reports amount to what the European Stability Initiative newsletter has called ‘a reporting revolution’. The strategy and reports aim to make comparisons between aspiring, candidate and negotiating states much easier and to give the process of enlargement, allegedly mired in ‘enlargement fatigue’, a new impetus.

First impressions are that the reports, one of the key monitoring and reform tools of enlargement policy goes, are indeed changed and much improved. The language of the reports is clearer, the recommendations more specific and it is much easier to judge at a glance whether a country has made progress or not and how it compares to others.

The priorities and focus on certain areas of reform appear to have shifted further away from the EU acquis and to fundamental political institutional and economic  problems which citizens of the countries assessed would recognize as important. Rule of law, freedom of expression, the work of national parliaments and public administration reform are highlighted as key areas to be addressed for all candidates. Economic governance and competitiveness, as well as tackling unemployment are identified as serious challenges for all candidate countries, except Turkey. The refugee crisis and the imperative it creates for cooperation in the region is explicitly and clearly mentioned. In this way, this year’s reports address and incorporate much of earlier criticism concerning their lack of clarity and focus on acquis chapters relevant for the distant future instead of the real problems of the countries they monitor. By identifying and pointing clearly to the most important problems and challenges candidates face, the reports – and the Commission – aim to support mobilisation for reform, as it worked in the past with previous enlargement rounds of 2004-2007.

The main source of inertia for enlargement policy however cannot be eliminated by this improvement and this is arguably the member states. Governments in the existing member states need to be convinced it is worth spending political capital in discussing enlargement in national political debates and in actually making the case in favour of the Western Balkans. Having clear and objective reports, as much as this is possible, helps to make the case that certain countries have made more progress than others. But it is to the member states and their political elites to make the choice to move enlargement towards the front of their political agenda. Germany’s experience with migrants from the region will certainly bring more heated debates there and give enlargement policy more prominence, which is also recognized by the initiatives taken under the so called ‘Berlin’ process. But in the Netherlands next door, politicians and media respond to the reports with a deafening silence, even though Dutch policy makers must recognize that they need to engage in the region to share information and make policy in the current refugee and migration crisis that affects the Western Balkans and Western Europe alike. A more pro-active enlargement policy should provide an excellent forum to discuss these issues, as it had done in the past. To have the citizens on board, however, politicians should consider telling the public that the enlargement policy and process is a way to make sustainable policies involving their Western Balkan neighbours, also on migration, at a time when coordinated action is desperately needed.


After the Eastern Partnership summit: Time to look away from geopolitics

The Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Latvia’s capital Riga on 21-22 May this year was evaluated by commentators as somewhere on the range between ‘lacking new momentum‘ to ‘disastrous’. The cautious approach by the EU is explained by many with the desire not to provoke new action by Russia with declarations about Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s European destiny and the need to allow the fragile Minsk II peace to take hold. Not only are Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia far from receiving the much desired EU membership perspective, the symbolic commitment from the EU to take them as members when they would fulfill its criteria for membership, but the expected visa liberalization decision for Ukraine has not materialized either. The language of the final declaration, reportedly the result of an uneasy compromise with Belarus and Armenia (on how to refer to the Crimea) is firm but non-committal.

In the wake of this disappointing summit, it is too easy, but also misleading to see the relations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the three Eastern Partnership states seeking closer ties with the EU, through a geopolitical lens only. Coming closer to the EU has always been about domestic reforms to fulfill technical requirements and harmonize with the acquis. It is now forgotten that Central and Eastern European states which are now EU members had to work to adapt to the commitments undertaken in their Association agreements before they received a membership perspective. Even as they negotiated for membership, CEE leaders knew the reforms they undertook were a modernization tool, as an end in themselves and not only something to do because the EU wanted it. While not all of the acquis has been beneficial for the economies of the new member states all the time, the commitment to rule of law and the EU’s regulatory model has taken the EU’s Eastern members on the road to better governance and economic growth.

The best path for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would be one of reforms for their own sake and not to please the EU. This is admittedly hard, for many reasons, starting from domestic instability to the regional threats. In a nuanced and realistic article written for The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, de Waal and Youngs call this approach‘reforms as resilience’.  They argue that better functioning institutions would give EaP states de facto sovereignty  and more confidence to choose their strategic identity. Furthermore, reforms, especially reforms in governance to make institutions less corrupt and more effective in providing public services is something citizens in these countries may appreciate in and of itself, rather than because the EU wants it. The focus on geopolitics obscures this and may almost provide a helpful excuse for reluctant elites, keen to preserve their privileged access to power and continue extracting rents.

The European Union’s moral authority to point to the need for reform is also currently obscured by its own geopolitical caution. It is the citizens of EaP states that should be the ones to make the choice clear: for reforms, regardless of the EU membership perspective. Yet the deeply rooted patterns of corruption and rent seeking and the economic weakness of neighbourhood states make it difficult to re-kindle domestic reform energy. Nevertheless, the path of domestic reforms may be the only one to break the vicious circle of mutual lack of serious commitment  that the EU and its Eastern partners seem to have entered.

Britain, Enlargement, Euroscepticism, Public opinion

Immigration from Central and Eastern Europe fuels support for Eurosceptic parties in the UK

Combining political, demographic and economic data for the local level in the UK, we find that the presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is related to higher voting shares cast for parties with Eurosceptic positions at the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Evidence across Europe supports the connection between immigration from CEE and the electoral success of anti-Europe and anti-immigration political parties.

Immigration has become the top political issue in the UK. It played a pivotal role during the European Parliament elections in 2014 and it is the most-talked about issue in the build-up to the national elections in 2015.

The arrival of Eastern Europeans in the wake of the ‘Big Bang’ EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007  has a large part of the blame to take for the rising political salience of immigration for the British public. Figure 1 shows that ever since the EU accession of the first post-communist countries in 2004, immigration has been considered one of the two most important issues facing the country by a substantial proportion of British citizens, surpassing even concerns about the economy, except for the period between 2008 and 2012.

Data source: Standard Eurobarometer (59 to 82).
Data source: Standard Eurobarometer (59 to 82).

These popular concerns have swiftly made their way into the electoral arena. Some political parties like UKIP and BNP have taken strong positions in favor of restricting immigration and against the process of European integration in general. Others, like the Conservative party, have advocated restricting access of EU immigrants to the British labour market[5] while retaining an ambivalent position towards the EU. Parties with positions supportive of immigration and European integration have altogether tried to dodge the issues for fear of electoral punishment. Arguably, political and media attention to immigration (and East European immigrants in particular) have acted to reinforce the public concerns. In short, British voters care about and fear immigration, and political parties have played to, if not orchestrated, the tune.

But there is more to this story. In recent research we find evidence that higher actual levels of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) at the local level in the UK are related to higher shares of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties at the last European Parliament elections in 2014. In other words, British Eurosceptic parties have received, on average and other things being equal, more votes in localities with higher relative shares of East European residents.

The relationship is not easy to uncover. Looking directly into the correlation between relative local-level CEE immigration population shares and the local vote shares of Eurosceptic parties would be misleading. Immigrants do not settle randomly, but take the economic and social context of the locality into account. At the same time, this local economic and social context is related to the average support for particular parties. For example, local unemployment levels are strongly positively correlated with the  vote share for the Labour party, and the local share of highly educated people is strongly positively correlated with the vote share for the Greens (based on the 2014 EP election results). Therefore, we have to examine the possible link between CEE immigration shares and the vote for Eurosceptic parties net of the effect of the economic and social local contexts which, in technical terms, potentially confound the relationship.

In addition, immigrants themselves can vote at the EP elections and they are more likely to vote for EU-friendly parties. This would tend to attenuate any positive link between the votes of the remaining local residents and support for Eurosceptic parties. Lastly, the available local level immigration statistics track only immigrants who have been in the country longer than three months (as of 27 March 2011). Hence, they miss more recent arrivals, seasonal workers and immigrants who have not been reached by the Census at all. All these complications stack the deck against finding a positive relationship between the local presence of CEE immigrants and the vote for Eurosceptic parties. It is thus even more remarkable that we do observe one.

Figure 2: A scatterplot of the relative share of CEE immigrants from the local population versus the residual share of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties (UKIP and BNP) at the 2014 EP elections

Figure 2 shows a scatterplot of the logged share of CEE immigrants from the local level population as of 2011 (on the horizontal axis) against the residual share of local level vote shares of Eurosceptic parties (UKIP and BNP) at the 2014 EP election (on the vertical axis). Each dot represents one locality (lower-tier council areas in England and unitary council areas in Wales and Scotland) and the size of the dot is proportional to the number of inhabitants. A few localities are labeled. The voting share is residual of all effects of the local unemployment level, and the relative shares of highly educated people, atheists, and non-Western immigrants in the population. In other words, the vertical axis shows the proportion of the vote for Eurosceptic parties unexplained by other social and economic variables.

The black straight line that best fits all observations is included as a guide to the eye. Its positive slope indicates that, on average, higher shares of CEE immigrants are related with higher Eurosceptic vote shares. Formal statistical tests show that the relationship is unlikely to be due to chance alone.

While the link is discernable from random fluctuations in the data, it is far from deterministic. Some of the localities with the highest relative shares of CEE immigrants, like Brent, have in fact only moderate Eurosceptic vote shares, and some localities with the highest share of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties, like Hartlepool, have very low registered presence of CEE immigrants. Nevertheless, even if it only holds on average, the relationship remains substantially important.

Does this mean that people born in the UK are more likely to vote for Eurosceptic parties because they have had more contact with East Europeans? Not necessarily. Relationships at the level of individual citizens cannot be inferred from relationships at an aggregate level (otherwise, we would be committing what statisticians call ecological fallacy). In fact, there is plenty of research in psychology and sociology showing that direct and sustained contact with members of an out-group, like immigrants, can decrease prejudice and xenophobic attitudes. But research has also found that the sheer presence of an out-group, especially when direct contact is limited and the public discourse is hostile, can heighten fears and feelings of threat of the host population as well. Both mechanisms for the effect of immigration presence on integration attitudes – the positive one of direct contact and the negative one of outgroup presence – are compatible with the aggregate level relationship that we find. And they could well coexist – for a nice illustration see this article in the Guardian  together with the comments section.

Is it really the local presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in particular that leads to higher support for Eurosceptic parties? It is difficult to disentangle the effects of CEE immigrants and immigrants from other parts of the world, as their local level shares share are correlated. Yet, the relative share of non-Western immigrants from the local population appears to have a negative association with support for Eurosceptic parties across a range of statistical model specifications, while the effect of CEE immigrants remains positive no matter whether non-Western immigration has been controlled for or not.

There is also evidence for an interaction between the presence of immigrants from CEE and from other parts of the world. The red line in Figure 2 is fitted only to the localities that have lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is steeper than the black one which indicates that for these localities the positive effect of CEE immigrants on Eurosceptic votes is actually stronger. The blue line is fitted only to the localities with lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is sloping in the other direction which implies that in localities with relatively high shares of immigrants from other parts of the world, the arrival of East Europeans does not increase the vote for Eurosceptic parties.

It is interesting to note the recent statement by UKIP leader Nigel Farage that he prefers immigrants from form former British colonies like Australia and India to East Europeans. Focusing rhetorical attacks on immigrants from CEE in particular fits and makes sense in light of the story told above.

We (with Elitsa Kortenska) also find that CEE immigration increases Euroscepticism at the local level in other countries as well. In a recently published article (ungated pre-print here) we report this effect in the context of the referenda on the ill-fate European Constitution in Spain, France, and The Netherlands in 2005 and on the Treaty of Lisbon in Ireland in 2008. In ongoing work we argue that local level presence of CEE immigrants is systematically related to higher vote shares cast for Eurosceptic parties in Austria, The Netherlands, and France, in addition to the British case discussed in this post.

Why does this all matter? The process of European integration presupposes the right of people to move and work freely within the borders of the Union. This is not only a matter of convenience, but of economic necessity. People from regions experiencing economic hardship must be able to move to other EU regions with growing economies for economic integration to function. In an integrated economy like the EU or the US, a Romanian or a Greek must be free to seek employment in the UK or in Poland the same way an American living in Detroit is able to relocate to California in search of work and fortune.

This is especially true given the lack of large-scale redistribution between EU regions. Economic Integration creates regional inequalities. One way to respond is to redistribute the benefits of integration. Another is to allow people and workers to move where employment chances are currently high. If none of these mechanisms is available, economic and political integration are doomed. Therefore, if immigration within the EU indeed fuels Euroscepticism, as our study suggests, the entire European integration project is at risk.


Would consensus on EU foreign policy decisions lead to ‘democracies without choices’?

In a refreshingly sophisticated interpretation, Alexandre Afonso ascribed the victory of Syriza in Greece is a logical result of what he has called ‘cartel politics’  in the South of Europe, the forming of political alliances between left and right parties to fulfil a specific goal linked to debt payments and implementation of austerity policies. The South European states Afonso refers to are not the only ones to have followed a fairly uniform course in terms of economic policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, as Ivan Krastev has argued, success in joining the European Union and following the EU’s economic rules and prescriptions have brought, next to the great improvements in institutions, governance and investment, a constraint on choices in economic policy that led him and others to label post communist states ‘democracies without choices’. Membership of the EU was a goal shared by all political parties and major stakeholders in Central and Eastern European states, albeit in different ways and sometimes, as in the case of the Czech republic’s Vaclav Klaus, with a eurosceptic tint; There is no doubt that striving for eurozone membership in particular (Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and since this year also Lithuania are euro members) has limited the spectrum of choices in economic policy, leading, as Krastev pointed out, to the rise of populist parties. Without entering into the huge debates around the rules of the eurozone and especially the effects of the convergence criteria on different types of economies in the EU, from a political science point of view the question of effects of key policies on national democracies continues to be a vexing one. The dangers of one size economic policy fits all EU member states may have been made painfully obvious by the sovereign debt crisis, but the question about continuity and commitment at EU level versus democratic choice at national level can be asked about all policies.

What are the effects on EU member states’ democracies when mutually agreed policies – in the past  – do not leave much room for change, for parties to campaign on and voters to choose from at present? This is clearly a question of EU democracy as a whole and so far no answers have emerged so far from the middle rather than extreme parts of the political spectrum to square the circle between democratic choice and supranational commitment.

An interesting variation on this theme has been the statement of the new Greek government’s foreign minister, Mr. Kotzias, that media reports that Greece did not agree with extension of Russian sanctions by the European Council were mistaken. Greek objections were only about the EU partners not having consulted the new Greek government before bringing a common position to the press. Mr. Varoufakis, the new finance minister and well known academic and blogger, provided clarification in his blog saying the objections were about not being consulted, so a question of respect. Yet earlier reports suggest the ambassador of Greece was well aware of the proposal, as all EU ambassadors are active participants in the formulation of such positions. Elections can and have led to change of positions of course, yet keeping to agreements made in ongoing consultations appears to be a matter of professional courtesy while a new government has the time to take a more active stance. The debacle with the Greek position on the extension of Russian sanctions appeared to be a case very important for the new Greek government, so one cannot blame commentators for wondering whether a change to a pro-Russia stance was on the cards.

Governments can and have dissented from common EU positions on foreign policy before, sometimes for many years, as the Greek position on the name of one of its neighbours shows. In this case, given that foreign policy decisions at this level in the EU are always based on unanimity (unless the devilishly complicated constructive abstention provisions are evoked) Greece as a member state and a democracy clearly has a choice, just like a number of Central and Eastern European states have followed their own foreign policy course, leading a famously irate former French President Chirac to comment that  when they signed letters backing the US position in Iraq in 2003, CEE states missed ‘ a good opportunity to keep quiet’. The question in the case of the EU’s stance towards Russia at the moment is whether it is possible for the new Greek government to respond to certain expectations or pro-Russian feelings that some of Syriza’s electorate may cherish without squandering good will that Greece may need from its partners on other issues. In other words, it may be a question not of respect, but of democracy and diplomacy.


Coming up: What do citizens make of enlargement?

We have been quiet in eurosearch, as we have been busy completing data collection under our ongoing project, MAXCAP‘s workpackage dealing with citizens’ perceptions and understandings of enlargement. The Leiden team and our collaborators from the Balkan Civil Society Development Network, the Free University of Berlin, Sofia University ‘Kliment Ochridski’ and many other colleagues committed to help with this project have worked hard to complete data collection from six countries. During the two stages of MAXCAP field work, we have gathered and filtered more than 8000 statements in 6 languages, visited 70 locations (you can see them here and here) – villages, towns and cities in Bulgaria, FYROM, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland and Serbia and interviewed more than 500 citizens of different backgrounds. The focus groups and interviews we conducted followed the steps prescribed by Q methodology,  seeking to understand what citizens of these countries make of enlargements past and future in a manner that left participants to interact with us and shape the data with their views. Our goal was to let citizens speak about what they expected, understood and felt about the 2004-2007 enlargement of the EU, but also about possible enlargements to come. The focus groups and interviews were an enjoyable and interactive experience in themselves for all of us and one thing we already discovered is that for most citizens of the member states that have joined the EU recently and for candidates, enlargement is closely interlinked with European integration, but for citizens of the older member states, this is not always the case and there is a clearer distinction by what we call in the EU literature widening and deepening.

We are currently analyzing our second stage interviews with 240 participants (40 subjects per country) and we are looking forward to discussing some first, very preliminary results of the analyses, at the House of Europe in the Hague on 14 January 2015. We would be happy if readers of this blog interested in our work  and able to do so would join us, you can find details of the event here. For those of you farther away, we will be publishing results as working papers in the coming year. The MAXCAP working paper series is being actively updated with lots of interesting work also from other teams of the project and our latest newsletter came out in December and may also be worth a visit.

More generally, I would like to wish you all a successful and interesting 2015 in which we can all follow our common interest in European politics, economics and societies and especially in the EU’s neighbourhood.


Time for a different approach to enlargement: can accession in the Western Balkans be given a new impulse for change?

The Western Balkans accession process is getting some new energy and commitment these days, but not from the ‘usual suspects’ responsible for enlargement negotiations and reforms. A group of academics and analysts from the region and further afield in Europe, united in the platform entitled ‘Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’ have produced a new policy paper, containing an analysis of the state of play of enlargement talks with the Western Balkans candidate and aspirant EU members.

The paper is good news: but not because the analysis they present in it gives us much cause for optimism. Just the opposite: they present a harsh picture of rent seeking elites that, despite paying lip service to the twin objectives of reform and EU membership, still use ethno-nationalist rhetoric to mobilise eletorates and preserve their own political power. The authors are no more optimistic about the European Union, which in its turn, according to them, is playing a game of ‘conditionality stretching’ that, by making conditions for moving to the next stage of accession negotiations ever more elaborate, reinforces the feeling of stagnation and backsliding in the Western Balkans accession process. EU elites, as the paper suggests, are preoccupied with EU’s own crisis and the consequences of the financial and economic crisis make immigration and free movement questions especially sensitive. And still despite this bleak picture which any scholar and commentator working in the region would recognize, the paper is good news because its pro-active stand, its willingness to name obstacles and to propose scenarios for moving forward, represent much of the independent drive that is needed to make enlargement a success against the odds.

In the MAXCAP project and in various other research networks and policy analysis centers, scholars and analysts are still trying to evaluate the Eastern enlargement and highlight its lessons. Yet it would not be premature to say that the lessons of enlargement in the past (especially the 2004-2007) rounds teach us that the process only gets a positive dynamic if there are reform minded elites of some kind who persist of pushing it forward. Testimonials of participants in the Eastern enlargement – negotiators, key policy makers – suggest that there were many points where the European Union’s leaders mistrusted accession candidates and were reluctant to allow them to move to the next stage, yet commitment to the goal of joining the EU by reformist politicians went a long way to overcome obstacles and initiate reforms. So even though the Eastern enlargement – consisting of the 2004 and 2007 rounds and Croatia in 2013 – started in a much more favourable geopolitical context than the current Western Balkans process, it also had its bottlenecks and setbacks and moments when it seemed it was going nowhere. The efforts of all kinds of people and organizations – from the negotiators that played such an important role in this process to working groups in ministries, to NGOs, businesses in the EU and in the candidate states, and not least, citizens were needed to make that enlargement happen.

Today we are much more fixated on policy conditionality and what the EU can do to stretch out the process even further so that candidates may be pushed to reform. But being stuck on a specific condition or a bilateral issue that has become so fossilized it is impossible to resolve – makes this extensive conditionality part of the vicious circle of enlargement. Where in the past it was about pushing a government in the direction of reforms, nowadays it appears almost that EU governments insist on more and more conditionality as a way to channel their mistrust in future enlargements. Processwise, conditions become institutionalized when they have played a role in negotiations with one country and then past conditions have become a part of the enlargement method. Between all these conditions and the politics of setting them, comparison between countries becomes a lost cause. In the absence of a common push from the EU side, bilateral problems dominate the process.

So in this bleak moment the Balkans in Europe Policy group offers four scenarios for the future of the accession process in the Western Balkans: 1/ business as usual, 2/following Turkey’s path and alienation from the EU 3/ abandoning enlargement and new unpredictability in the Western Balkans and 4/ the Balkans Big bang. The authors argue that creating conditions for a Balkan big bang, their preferred scenario, should not be impossible even in today’s unfavourable EU context. Fewer conditions, posed after talks have started and not prior to their start and more transparent competition between the aspiring and candidate states may be the way to reinvigorate the process. Despite the criticism for conditionality, in my view such a change would require a shift in the member states’ approach and not so much the Commission’s. What is clear is that the current approach to enlargement – as the paper’s authors call it ‘business as usual’ – is not leading to much progress in reforms that would make the countries of the Western Balkans more democratic and prosperous or better neighbours for the EU. Time to try something else?


Dealing with Turkey after Ukraine: could a new type of Union be forged?

The European Union’s confidence in its reach and attractiveness to its neighbours will never be the same after the events in Ukraine at the end of 2013. Even if there are few explicit signs yet that the years of inertia when the EU happily followed the tried and tested enlargement method are coming to an end, the realization must be dawning on European leaders that not only President Putin, but also other leaders of important EU neighbours are playing a different geopolitical game than the EU’s neighbourhood policy envisaged. Using enlargement as the most successful foreign policy tool the EU has had in the past decade may be dangerously inadequate in the current situation. The question is whether relations with Turkey, the largest and most geopolitically important of the countries currently negotiating for membership, should be reconsidered in the light of the dramatically changed global environment.

When former Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused to sign the long-negotiated Association agreement with the EU in Vilnius in November 2013, he appeared to EU leaders as someone who had been living in another world. And so he had. His power base was rooted in a personalized network, in a regime that had been increasingly turning from a formal democracy to an openly neo-patrimonial oligarchy. Confronted with Ukraine’s domestic elites and institutions, the European Union’s conditionality approach had a negligible impact in driving reforms. . The fact that Ukrainian elites, including the ones linked to previous President Yushchenko, were not in a hurry to implement the reforms the EU required, should have served as a wake up call for the European Union even before the Vilnius summit.

For all the differences between the EU’s Neighbourhood policy and enlargement, conditionality – trading domestic reforms for progress in negotiations – remains the cornerstone of the EU’s approach. But can it still work as it did in the past? During the Eastern enlargement of 2004-2007, there were several mechanisms underlying conditionality’s success. Next to a fairly credible accession promise on the EU’s side, domestically, both rational factors and socialization mechanisms worked to support EU demands for reform. As Central and Eastern European (CEE) politicians assured their electorates that they were working to ‘return to Europe’, rational cost-benefit calculations were strengthened by pre-existing socialization. The success of EU conditionality in Eastern Europe in the past was ultimately ensured by the fact that domestic leaders derived their own legitimation from following a path of Euro-Atlantic integration. This pre-existing socialization and the domestic institutional structure of the CEE states worked to complement EU demands and kept the process going. Such pre-existing socialization and favourable global context no longer exist for any accession candidate, with the possible exception of Serbia.

Despite the increasing resistance of candidate countries to reforming their domestic political institutions and policies, the EU’s enlargement strategy as it has evolved since 2011, includes even more ‘strict but fair’ conditionality rather than a reconsideration of it. Adding more steps in the process of accession and benchmarks for difficult chapters works when a country is well on its way to membership, as Croatia was. Despite the clear normative logic behind it, a similar approach has not worked in the negotiations of the Association agreement with Ukraine and it will most likely continue to be problematic for Turkey. Looking back at the last quarter century of enlargement, Heather Grabbe noted the EU’s gravitational pull has been remarkable, but that we have reached the end of the EU’s monopoly on transformative power . It is time to reassess the EU’s approach vis-à-vis its neighbours and partners.

What are the implications of this reassessment for relations between the EU and Turkey?

As Maniokas and Žeruolis have recently argued, enlargement is not a recipe for a successful foreign policy in general. Nowhere is this truer than for the EU and Turkey. Turkey’s negotiation process has been stuck in a stalemate since 2008. Even though formal negotiations have restarted in 2012 with a ‘positive agenda’ approach intended by the EU ‘to bring fresh dynamics into Turkey-EU relations’ and chapter 22 on regional policy has been opened, there has been no solution for the problems that led to this stalemate in the first place.

More importantly, the enlargement method does not work for the purpose of taking the next step to closer relations with Turkey demanded by the unfolding security threats in Europe, in Syria and elsewhere. The enlargement method, fixated as it is on a sequencing of chapters and harmonizing legislation with the EU’s own regulatory model, does not allow much flexibility to set different priorities. The enlargement method is not a foreign policy strategy adequate to the current situation in Europe and beyond.

The European Commission has recognized this and stressed Turkey’s role as a strategic partner in last year’s progress report. Yet at the same time, the Commission stated that the Positive Agenda adopted in 2012 is not a substitute for negotiations. However, in the light of developments in Ukraine and in Syria, we need to ask the opposite question, namely, whether negotiations are a good substitute for foreign policy. In contrast to the Commission’s view, I would argue the accession process is no longer the most suitable framework for EU-Turkey relations.

There are three main reasons for this: first, the dynamics of the accession process, second, the character and content of the acquis and third, the larger geopolitical picture in Europe and the expansion of Russian interests through, among others, the Eurasian Customs Union.

The dynamics of EU-Turkey negotiations have become largely negative, by the sheer virtue of being blocked for such a long time. Furthermore, if we accept that domestic elites and their socialization matter more than we previously realised, we need to ask ourselves whether Turkey’s new elites, led by Prime Minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are interested going along with EU conditions. Until a few weeks ago, this question would have been answered in the negative, based on Turkish reactions to EU criticism of the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi park protests and their coverage in social media platforms. However, on 18 September 2014, Turkey announced a new strategy to accelerate its accession process, including constitutional reforms and a public relations campaign. While first reports of this strategy indicate a change of tone and a greater commitment to dialogue with the EU on political reform, the European Union’s ability to respond to such changes, were they indeed to take place, remains very limited.

The EU’s credibility in relation to Turkey’s accession is diminished due to the EU’s own enlargement fatigue and negative public opinion trends towards Turkey as a potential member in several large member states. Even with the rising external threats from Russia and Syria, a substantial group of EU member states still inward looking with government policies responding to electorates for whom immigration rather than external security are seen as the biggest threat.

There is, however, little doubt that the European Union should re-evaluate its relationship with all its neighbours in the light of Russia’s new expansionism. Developments in Ukraine have shown that the EU should consider President Putin’s Russia as a rival on the continent. Given the pro-active Russian stance towards Ukraine and previously Georgia, it is not too far fetched to anticipate that Putin may have an expansive strategy for other Black Sea neighbours, such as Turkey. Turkey being a NATO member and a strong military power, Russia may seek closer ties in energy and trade to attract Turkey towards its orbit.

A rapprochement between Turkey and Russia may not be as unrealistic as its sounds. For one thing, even if Russia’s takeover of the Crimea affected the Crimean Tatars considerably, Turkish official reaction to their problems has been less vigorous than could have been expected.

Furthermore, similarities between the Russian and Turkish ideas of statehood might become more important especially if Turkey continues to feel rejected by the European Union. It is possible to imagine President Erdoğan having sympathy for Putin’s drive to reassert Russia’s role in the international arena as a way to anchor his popularity at home. It is also not unlikely that Erdoğan, Turkey’s most influential conservative politician, may find common ground with Putin the conservative. The Russian President has been positioning himself as the defender of conservative values, against the European Union as the ‘overly liberal’, ‘too tolerant’ other. This social conservatism may serve as a common ideological platform between Russia and some Turkish elites as it has already served to create common ground between Putin and the European far right. The spillover to geopolitical or trade issues may be both unexpected and disastrous for the European Union.

During the Minsk summit of the Eurasian Customs Union in October last year, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbaev was quoted as saying that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan had enquired about joining the Eurasian Customs Union. Such an eventuality may currently seem far-fetched, but its potential repercussions should be considered nonetheless.

Again, the recent example of Ukraine’s Association agreement with the EU and Russia’s attempts to have it amended is instructive. In September 2014, Russia attempted to re-negotiate the content and implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and especially its trade part, arguing that the trade provisions were incompatible with Ukraine’s participation in the Eurasian Customs Union. Russia submitted а long list of amendments to the already signed agreement, the main thrust of which were demands to exclude a number of goods from its coverage, about 20 per cent of all included goods.

Current agreements regarding the Customs Union between the EU and Turkey envisage that Turkey would align itself with the acquis of the Union with regard to industrial standards. Given Russian insistence on the importance of standards used in the Eurasian Union, both trade and political incompatibilities would mean Turkey would need to choose one of the regional trade blocks, but not both.

Even if Turkey’s reported interest in the Eurasian Union may currently be just another expression of frustration with the EU and the stalemate in the accession negotiations, the very existence of the Eurasian Customs Union, means the EU will not be the only game in regional integration in Europe any more. The European Union should strengthen its relations with Turkey to prevent more serious moves in the direction of the Eurasian Union.

The enlargement process as it currently is, can become an impediment to this goal, in several ways. First of all, despite resuming negotiations in November 2013, they are viewed by an increasing number of politicians in the EU member states as open-ended. It would not be an exaggeration to call them a dead end, especially if EU’s democracy standards continue to clash with the policies of Turkish leaders on civil society or the media. Even if they take a course of implementing further reforms in democratic governance, the EU is not able to make its promise of accession a reality, given the broad differences of opinion between member states on Turkish accession.

Next to this, the process and content of accession negotiations do not allow more flexible integration where there are common interests or needs. In terms of content, the bulk of the acquis are still market regulations based on bargains struck between the member states in the past. The EU’s enlargement method does not choose between acquis areas. Differences in sequencing are hardly a solution to this. While the Commission’s enlargement strategy for the 2004-2007 accession round relied on opening ‘easy’ chapters first to build progress and momentum and the revised strategy applied to Croatia started with ‘difficult’ rule of law chapters, keeping them open to the end, neither makes much sense as a short and medium term response to the geopolitical challenges the EU and Turkey face today.

The EU should aim to make a strategy and a foreign policy for Turkey taking these current challenges, especially the violent conflict in Syria, hostilities in Eastern Ukraine and the repercussions of the sanctions against Russia, into account. This would require two substantial adjustments in current thinking. First, both European and Turkish elites have to find a way to accept that accession will not happen. This should not mean giving up on trade and the Customs Union or offending and alienating Turkish elites: just the opposite. The goal of accession should be replaced with a form of functional Union , building on the existing Customs Union and providing both sides with support in handling the geopolitical problems they are faced with. A key difference with the current approach would be that it would not be based on a sequential adoption of existing acquis chapters, but on agreements to integrate deeply in specific, narrowly defined policy areas.

The formation of such a functional Union involving cooperation in specific policy areas, next to the Customs Union would be a form of differential integration. This would involve a second adjustment to current thinking. Instead of working through the acquis, the EU and Turkey could pick the policy areas in which each partner needs cooperation with the other and start from there. Policies to deal with refugees and asylum seekers, regional support for Turkish regions affected by the Syrian conflict, a joint policy supporting the rights of Crimean Tatars, joint policy on the conflict in Ukraine and trade arrangements in response to the Russian import sanctions could each be the subject of narrow, but deep cooperation. Another cluster of integrated policies could cover aspects of security not covered by NATO, such as economic security, energy security and energy routes. The EU’s values on freedom of expression, human rights and democracy do not need to be abandoned, but could be included as part of the issue linkages which would inevitably occur during negotiations. Such a differential EU-Turkey Union would be formed on the basis of equal negotiations, rather than the asymmetric enlargement method. The substitution of more equal negotiations for the currently ineffective enlargement method may in itself send a signal to Turkey that it is taken seriously as an important partner in trade and security and an important regional geopolitical power. In these precarious times, it is crucial that policy makers in the European Union ensure that the Union has a united front with Turkey on the future of Europe.

A shorter version of this commentary has been first published in the Global Turkey in Europe series of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and can be accessed here.