Central and Eastern Europe, Public opinion, the Netherlands, Ukraine

Ukrainians trying (again) to argue against the Dutch ‘No’ while ratification remains uncertain

A guest post by Elitsa Kortenska:

Since 6 April 2016 when a consultative referendum in the Netherlands on the EU’s Association Agreement  with Ukraine resulted in 61 percent votes against it and 38 percent in favour, ratification is on hold. The Netherlands was the last member state whose ratification was needed for its entry into force. Since April, the government and the Prime Minister have postponed decision to withdraw Dutch support for the Agreement several times. In the last couple of months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has intensified his efforts in Brussels and in the Netherlands to resolve the problem. He stated repeatedly that the failure to ratify the Agreement would be a ‘massive mistake’ for the Netherlands, as POLITICO reported.

In October Rutte attempted to persuade political parties (see his official letter sent to Parliament) to rally around  and ratify it despite the referendum results. The forthcoming elections are making this a politically risky proposition especially with the initiators of the referendum Baudet and Jan Roos both going into politics with political formations on the right, aiming seats in parliament. Meanwhile, in an interview for a Dutch radio, former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans urged political parties to give a green light to the Agreement and referred to the consultative nature of the referendum. Emphasizing the risk of instability in the region at the event of non-ratification, Timmermans said ‘we should not offer presents to Putin’. Yet the fate of Agreement remains uncertain due to the unwillingness of the Dutch second and first chamber to appear to dismiss the popular vote with national elections around the corner.

Earlier in October, Ukrainian officials, parliament members and civil society tried to argue the case for ratification and discussed the dynamics linked to it at a symposium, organized by the newly launched Netherlands-Ukraine Society. Speakers highlighted the paramount importance of the Treaty for the Ukraine domestic political and economic transformation. From the perspective of the seven Ukrainian students, who had led a six-day ‘For’ campaign just before the referendum date, the negative result meant a need  for more initiatives presenting a positive image of the ongoing transformation in ‘new’ Ukraine and AA-related reforms.

Ukrainian politicians and civil society members present at the event warned about the negative implications of failure of the Agreement. While Dutch citizens’ concerns and the ‘No’ vote must be taken seriously and addressed, according to Taras Kachka this could be achieved without renegotiating or changing the provisions of the Agreement. Since a number of the Treaty provisions have already been enforced, he hoped that that the Dutch ‘No’ would not ‘kill’ the Treaty. ‘The Agreement is not merely a technical tool for integration for Ukraine, but it symbolizes enormous changes in Ukrainian political culture and society’ he argued.

Enforcement of the treaty provisions has achieved progress in important areas of  reform: rule of law and market liberalization, but those have not reached a ‘point of no return’, civil society representatives argued. The Reanimation Reform Package (RRP) for Ukraine is a clear example of Ukrainian civil society engagement in the reform process. Olena Halushka, RRP representative, said: ‘the Maidan is the real evidence that signing the AA was not a political decision taken top-down’, but a result of citizens’ desire for transformation in Ukraine and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’.  Reforms and their enforcement are not irreversible, Halushka warned and emphasized that the political will for adopting and implementing reforms depends on full enforcement of AA provisions and the synergy between civil society and external EU pressure.

Parliamentarians Serhiy Kiral (Samopomich Union) and Vladyslav Golub (Petro Poroschenko Bloc) stressed political and financial support through the AA is key for maintaining political consensus on reforms domestically. Uncertainty over the Dutch decision has weakened the EU’s commitment to the Agreement, while the on-going Russian information war,  propaganda and aggression in Ukraine renders non-ratification extremely risky for domestic reform process, they argued.

While the Dutch ‘No’ cannot be simply disregarded, the implications of the failure of the Treaty could have more negative consequences for EU, the Netherlands and Ukraine than public is aware. According to the symposium speakers, one way to resolve the problem within the Netherlands is through broader public debate, information and communication on the economic benefits of the Treaty for the Netherlands It remains to be seen whether it is already too late for this, in terms of ratification. A decision from Dutch parliament is yet to come, but the delay already costs the EU some credibility, affects political commitment for reforms in Ukraine and potentially contributes to further political deadlock.

Academic research on the EU, Enlargement, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.


Enlargement, Uncategorized

Time for domestic political debate on future EU enlargement

As Dutch media announced this week, a first opinion poll conducted by a public TV programme EenVandaag showed that a majority of Dutch citizens may vote against the Association agreement with Ukraine in the referendum planned for 6 April 2016. Our colleague Joop van Holsteyn, special professor in electoral research at Leiden University, has warned that it cannot be established how representative the EenVandaag polls are, as they are based on a self-selected panel of citizens. Yet he also stressed that the results suggest the 30 per cent threshold for the validity of the results of the referendum would be easily reached based on these first results. As he also noted the government has so far allocated meagre funds for campaigning, likely with the idea that citizens would not come out and vote.

This attitude by Dutch politicians, if this is indeed the government’s campaign plan, brings uncomfortable memories of their approach to the Constitutional treaty referendum, for which campaigning was both short and uninspired. We all know how this ended up.

Commission President Juncker appeared to advocate for a more pro-active approach, Juncker suggesting in an interview for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper that the government should defend the agreement they have signed. He warned that a Europe-wide crisis could be precipitated by a Dutch ‘no’ in the advisory referendum.

The arguments for the Association agreement need to be put clearly on the table and some of the myths spread by the initiators should be discussed openly. Contrary to what the initiators of the referendum have claimed, the agreement does not open the door to Ukrainian EU membership in the short or even medium term. As we have argued here, the EU has been very careful to leave relations with Ukraine open-ended. The initiators also claim that the treaty will lead to the provision of millions of financial assistance to Ukraine. They set the question of rejecting it as an issue of national identity and sovereignty, as well as material interest. As we know from public opinion analyses in Europe, perceived material interests and identity are the most important determinants of public opinion trends. So the initiators of the referendum and their arguments should be taken seriously, despite their selective approach to the facts. A rational presentation of counter-arguments may not suffice. For those of us who see the Association agreement as a useful tool for supporting much needed reforms in Ukraine, need to discuss the implications for stability and security in Europe and also the Netherlands (including migration) in case the agreement is rejected.

Furthermore, the broader implications of the politicisation of the ratification of the agreement should be considered. The EU – and the Netherlands , in the Council of Ministers -is negotiating with a number of Western Balkan candidates for membership. In mid-December 2015, the EU opened the first two chapters of negotiations with Serbia, marking some real progress after a year of stagnation. Serbs see this as a historic step, an achievement they have reached, paid for with difficult compromises over Kosovo. The opening of the next two chapters, 23 and 24: on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Justice, Freedom and Security, is expected to take place in the first half of 2016.

The EU’s influence on Serbian foreign policy, however, is precarious and seen by many to depend on further progress in accession negotiations. As our research in discourses on EU membership in Serbia has shown, many Serb citizens see relations with Kosovo as the most painful step their country has to take on the road to membership. The high domestic cost of concessions on Kosovo means that Serbian leaders may not be able to maintain commitment to reforms for a very long period of time. Therefore, they have set for themselves the ambitious goal to be ready for membership in 2020.

Back to the Dutch referendum and its implications for this process: if the Association agreement is rejected  – not for legal, but for political reasons some Dutch political parties may follow a negative referendum result – EU’s conditionality in enlargement would be much less credible. Serbia and other current candidates may, with good reason, ask themselves whether they are willing to pay the cost of adjusting to the EU when their accession could be put on hold in a similar referendum in the future. After all, accession treaties still require unanimity to come into force. Another good reason for Dutch political parties to campaign vigorously in the current referendum – and for the government to inform its citizens more regularly of progress and decisions reached in enlargement negotiations.




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.


Postponing the implementation of the trade part of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement: Pragmatism or Surrender

After a long absence, we come back with an insightful analysis of the implications of the postponement of the implementation of the Trade part of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement by guest authors from Birmingham University

Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk

Few bilateral agreements have had such a turbulent history and implications as the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. The refusal to sign the agreement by then president Yanukovych triggered massive protests in Ukraine resulting in his overthrow in February 2014. This in turn provoked Russia’s response: annexing Crimea and fuelling separatism in Eastern Ukraine, including direct military incursion in August 2014.

Importantly, the Agreement envisages a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which entails tariff changes but also provides for Ukraine’s integration into the EU single market. Russia has objected to both, alleging potential damage to its economy. Clearly, an important aspect of this ‘damage’ lies in the fact that the DCFTA precludes Ukraine’s membership into the Eurasian integration bloc, something which Russia has actively sought and presented as a viable (and indeed preferable) alternative to integration with the EU.

Asserting its independence, Ukraine signed the Agreement in June 2014. Russia’s opposition to it intensified over the summer leading to its delayed ratification. Trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia negotiations continued against the backdrop of military intervention and threats of a trade war against Ukraine. Indeed, Russia’s demands have been far-reaching including a revision of the already signed agreement. The Russian government has in fact drafted amendments to substantive terms in somebody else’s agreement.

The tri-lateral negotiations resulted in compromise: the Agreement was ratified by the Ukrainian and European parliaments, but implementation of the key trade-related part (the DCFTA), was suspended until the end of 2015 due to ‘Russia’s concerns’. This middle ground is already proving to be unstable, with Russia reinforcing its demands for legal revisions and the exclusion of 2,000 commodities from the free trade regime. To assert its position, it has imposed tariffs with suspended application to mirror the EU’s approach. Furthermore, in a spectacular U-turn, it seems that at least the outgoing Commission President Barroso is not averse to the thought of revising an agreement that has been signed and ceremoniously ratified.

Who favoured this ‘compromise’ and why it was adopted still needs to be fully clarified. EU officials indicate that it was requested by the Ukrainian side concerned about the economic and social implications of Russia’s trade sanctions. Similarly, there was pressure from EU member states putting a premium on ‘appeasement’, or the ‘normalisation’ of relations with Russia and an end to the costly spiral of reciprocal economic sanctions. Despite what is undoubtedly a complex background story, the postponement of the agreement was labelled ‘business as usual’. If anything, the EU’s response to Russia’s pressure for a say on EU-Ukraine’s relations was presented as a success, on the grounds that ratification had taken place without ‘a single word having been changed’. As Elmar Brok, a veteran member of the European Parliament put it:
‘… this process [i.e. negotiations] has been concluded. And the Russians are part of it. They were there for the negotiations. It’s all coming into force. It’s just being implemented incrementally, as is often the case with contracts. From the legal point of view, the whole contract will be enforced in all its details. It’s just that there are often transitional arrangements. That’s normal in business.’

There is no doubt that since the start of the crisis, the EU has found itself in a particularly difficult position where it has tried to balance principles, economic interests and complex constraints. Yet, in opting for this latest compromise, Brussels has performed a U-turn with potentially high and diverse costs without securing a lasting resolution of the core issues in the post-Soviet region. Certainly many – the present authors included – have pointed out the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy so as to address a range of serious concerns. However, a last-minute decision announced three days before the Association Agreement’s ratification and taking many top EU officials by surprise hardly constitutes such a review. Allowing Russia to dictate EU-Ukraine relations does not indicate the application of a comprehensive, sustainable strategy. Whether it is born out of a pragmatic trade-off or a tactical retreat, it is a short-term fix based on a set of shaky assumptions. Its far-reaching implications, however, will still need to be confronted.

First, allowing Russia to participate in the EU’s negotiations on a bilateral agreement with another country sets a dangerous precedent. It is a blatant reversal of the EU’s earlier position. It opens a minefield for international lawyers. Even more importantly, it undermines the principle of dealing with Ukraine as an independent country: regardless of its ‘semantic framing’, the EU has accepted Russia’s right to determine the essential terms and the limits of its post-Soviet neighbours’ integration choices. The potential application of this precedent to other neighbours is obvious, but also has implications for relations further afield involving Turkey or China. Importantly, the EU likewise concedes to Russia’s double-standards in international relations: while Putin complains that nobody talked to Russia about the potential consequences of the DCFTA, he conveniently forgets that the Eurasian Customs Union was launched in 2010 with no consultation with the EU and no adequate transitional arrangements resulting in significant damage to EU businesses.

Second, it is not only the inclusion of a third party as such, but also the mode and the professed reasons for accommodating its preferences that are questionable. Russia’s justifications for its ‘trade concerns’, have been highly spurious and are, as Michael Emerson put it, ‘a non-story’. For example the problem of Russia being ‘swamped by EU goods’ can be addressed by the proper application of rules of origin. The EU has been involved in consultations with Russia on the subject for many months now making a strong case as to why the DCFTA need not disrupt existing trade arrangements. It is unclear how fifteen more months of discussions will help resolve a problem that in its essence is neither legal nor technical. Above all, Russia’s concern is a thinly veiled contestation as to who the rule-setter in the post-Soviet space is. Russia principally objects to the EU expanding its regulatory framework – via the Association Agreements – to Russia’s perceived exclusive backyard, the post-Soviet space. This is especially so given the clash of EU policy with the expansion of Russia’s own economic integration project. Faced with a complex bundle of economic and geopolitical concerns, the EU conceded to pressure rather than sound argument.

Third, EU statements on the deal refer to the peace process in Eastern Ukraine, implying that it amounts to a necessary sacrifice for the sake of ensuring a peaceful resolution between the separatists and the Ukrainian government. Its political acceptability is justified against the backdrop of a military conflict in which Russia has been a party. However, Moscow has adamantly refused to acknowledge its involvement, endeavouring to present the conflict as a local, bottom-up rebellion. Securing peace and saving human lives is an objective one certainly cannot disagree with; however, as it stands, the deal offers few guarantees and carries considerable costs. While Russia refuses to acknowledge its role in the conflict, the deal legitimises and validates Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ strategy: by instigating conflict, Russia is able to extract concessions from the EU for the sake of a ‘contribution to peace’.

Fourth, the EU’s actions rest on the assumption of a ‘fixed and stable agreement’, one that reflects and accommodates Russia’s preferences. It assumes that agreements and rules will be implemented. The source of this optimism – given Russia’s track record of behaviour – is unclear. Indeed, it has already been revealed that Russia is not satisfied by the mere delay of the Agreement’s implementation. Furthermore, the consensus on what constitutes ‘implementation’ might be overestimated given Putin’s reference to ‘any legislative implementing acts under the Association Agreement’. There is no reason to assume that Russia’s decision to trigger sanctions will be based more on law and shared understanding than in previous instances. The EU’s longing for ‘business as usual’ obscures the fact that this is the last thing it is and that Russia’s claims are derived not from legal agreements but from claims to a sphere of influence.

Fifth, while the need to ensure the compatibility of the DCFTA with interregional linkages is understandable, the EU has shown a sudden ready acceptance of post-Soviet integration structures. After many years during which the EU had raised valid concerns: for example, about the degree to which the Eurasian Customs Union acts as an economic rather than a Russia-steered, political entity with an unclear division of competences, or the degree to which it contributes to trade liberalisation and WTO commitments implementation. We, amongst others, have criticised the EU’s lack of strategic engagement with the Eurasian project, yet the show of caution has not been entirely unjustified.

If anything, Russia’s policies towards Ukraine amplify these concerns: the Kremlin has in effect (and with its partners’ consent), destroyed the Eurasian Customs Union by imposing unilateral trade measures on Ukraine. Recent statements of Commissioner Füle, however, reveal the EU ‘warming up’ to Eurasian structures, based on a presumed functional and rule-based equivalence of both regimes. While the Eurasian structures certainly contain promise, its actual delivery is circumscribed by a range of problems of institutional design and implementation.

The EU continues to state that regional economic integration frameworks need to contribute to trade liberalisation and WTO compliance. Yet, ironically, Russia’s threats to Ukraine – rather than the success of the Eurasian project itself – might end up earning it external recognition just as these very same threats undermine it internally. Furthermore, while the EU might be willing to enter into a comprehensive free trade area ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’, there is actually no certainty that free trade is what Russia wants and pursues.

On balance, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that by agreeing to this pragmatic, ‘principles-lite’ deal, the EU accepts and legitimises a particular way of conducting international relations favoured by Russia. Acquiescence to this pattern of behaviour comes at the very time when Moscow’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine amount to a shake-up of the international order. The EU’s pragmatism has not been lost on the people of Ukraine, with the prevailing interpretation on social media being one of ‘having been abandoned’. For an outgoing team of the European Commissioners to present this as ‘business as usual’ while leaving a series of ‘landmines’ for future interactions between the EU and Russia should be a source of deep concern. Yielding to Russian anxieties rather than comprehensively addressing existing questions, opens a raft of new issues. They need to be confronted rather than obfuscated behind the rhetoric of normality.

A shorter version of this commentary has been published in The Conversation

Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

Can the CIS Survive the Ukraine Crisis?

A guest post by Rilka Dragneva

The death of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been foretold many times during its history of (now) more than 20 years. Dissatisfaction with its weak and confusing institutional structure and a failure to promote effective regional integration has become an almost permanent background to its existence. Despite the remarkable resilience of the CIS, there are several signs suggesting that the current crisis is more fundamental and extreme than previous shake-ups.

Firstly, the present crisis focuses on a founding member of the CIS, Ukraine. It is important to remember that the very CIS formula came into being at the secret Belovezhskaia Pushcha meeting between Presidents Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich of 8 December 1991 in order to accommodate Ukraine’s refusal to participate in a reformed Union,[i] and was very much ‘thrust upon’ the other former Soviet republics. Arguably, Ukraine was instrumental in shaping the design and ultimately the limits of the CIS in its gradual institutionalisation in the early 1990s. It did not sign the Charter of the CIS in January 1993 but took an active role in its drafting and, as President Kravchuk stated, considered itself a ‘member of the CIS, actively participating in its improvement’.[ii]

In March 2014 the Ukrainian authorities announced the termination of their presidency of the CIS and their intention to leave the organization altogether. Indeed, a bill on the denunciation of the CIS Founding Agreement was introduced into the Rada by MP Boris Tarasyuk. Georgia had withdrawn from the CIS previously, in August 2008. In legal terms, both countries’ membership was of a peculiar nature, as neither had fully met the conditions of the Charter requiring 1) participation in the founding agreements of December 1991 (fulfilled by Ukraine but not by Georgia), and 2) ‘assuming the obligations under the Charter’ within a year of its adoption (fulfilled by Georgia but not by Ukraine). Nonetheless, the importance of the withdrawal of a founding member of the organization could not be overstated in the CIS world of ‘casual legality’ but high political symbolism.

Secondly, Ukraine’s pending withdrawal rests on a charge that the CIS and its institutions have failed to address the Crimean crisis, that, in other words, rather than exercising its most basic function of promoting dialogue, the peaceful resolution of disputes and cooperation, the CIS has turned into Russia’s puppet. In the beginning of March 2014, the Ukraine had called for an extraordinary meeting of the CIS Foreign Ministers Council in Kiev to discuss the crisis. The request was denied by the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which instead approved an alternative proposal for a meeting of deputy Foreign Ministers in Minsk. This was deemed as unacceptable by Ukraine, which challenged the de jure as well as de facto ability of the CIS to function.

Indeed, it is clear that the multilateral structures of the CIS have been marginalised and that the response to the crisis has been driven by one-to-one dialogue at the highest level. When the Foreign Ministers Council met in Moscow on 4 April, it dealt with the vacant presidency of the CIS, but did not engage in any formal Ukraine-related effort. In fact, the principal decision-making bodies of the CIS, the Councils of Heads of State and Government, have not held a formal meeting since 25 October 2013 and 20 November 2013 respectively.

According to the Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman, Ukraine’s March request was supported only by Kishinev; in a recent interview she noted that the situation called for a ‘very thorough analysis and evaluation of what has happened within the CIS’. Other leaders were predictably more restrained. The Belarusian President Lukashenka recently described the situation as ‘not very simple’, but proceeded to reject a break-up of the organization despite half-heartedly acknowledging problems. Meanwhile, as argued by Farkhad Tolipov, Russia’s disregard of multilateralism was not lost on the Central Asian countries.

President Putin held a meeting with the Presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgzstan, Russia and Tajikistan on 8 May 2014 – all of them members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Rather than a formal gathering of the organization, this was a ‘talking down to’ at Russia’s invitation, and Kazakhstan’s absence is yet to be deciphered. Nonetheless, the meeting betrayed the concerns of even loyal supporters of the Russian position – like Armenian President Sargsyan – about the need for more coordination and multilateralism in responding to foreign policy crises.

Thirdly, the Ukraine crisis challenges the very premises of the post-Soviet settlement: the principles of national sovereignty, independent statehood, and territorial integrity embodied in the CIS founding agreements. As Tolipov notes, unlike the Crimean case, the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 did not lead to annexation by Russia. And while the fact of Crimea’s annexation has largely been accepted by the CIS member states, their reaction has not been as definite, unambiguous and resolute as Russia might have wanted. Certainly, for many of them – especially those with a sizeable Russian minority – the post-Soviet settlement is not a safe and secure option anymore.

Fourthly, Russia’s specific interest in the CIS is not easy to fathom. While Ukraine has certainly been very selective in its participation in the organisation,[iii] Russia has been discerning too: for example, it never ratified the 1994 and 1999 Free Trade Agreements concluded within the organisation. In March 2005, Putin stated that ‘the CIS never had any supertasks (sverkhzadach) of an economic nature, any integration tasks in the sphere of economics’. As Tolipov aptly points out, in his 18 March 2014 speech, Putin delegitimized the CIS even further: by arguing that Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union was illegal, he also challenged the very legality of the Commonwealth. Perhaps not incidentally, Putin’s latest address to the Federal Assembly, on 12 December 2013, mentioned the CIS only in relation to educational cooperation. Putin’s recent agenda has focused primarily on building a Eurasian (Economic) Union, implying the hollowing out of previously important organizations, such as EvrAzES. While some continuity will be provided within the Eurasian Economic Union, the future status of non-Customs Union members of EvrAzES remains unclear.

Yet, despite Russia’s fairly opaque position on the CIS, it has developed a key interest in the 2011 Free Trade agreement, and particularly in its perceived incompatibility with Ukraine’s signature of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. In a newly discovered concern for legality (and in contrast with previous casual attitudes to CIS agreements and, indeed, Putin’s above-mentioned statement on the organisation’s limited economic role), Ukraine was accused of violating Article 13 of the 2011 CIS FTA.

It is evident that despite Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurances of ‘not keeping anyone in the CIS by force’, Ukraine’s possible exit from the organization needs to be viewed in the context of the ‘carrot and stick’ policy employed in securing Putin’s geopolitical vision. Given the ‘variable geometry’ principle in signing agreements in the CIS, a withdrawal from the 8 December 1991 Agreement would not automatically imply an exit from other arrangements. Indeed, the stated intention of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is to analyse individual agreements and determine ‘the feasibility of Ukraine’s further participation’ in them. Yet, this decision might require a more complex cost/benefit calculation. As Viktor Medvedchuk, a well-known protagonist of Russia’s interests in the country noted: ‘Ukraine’s withdrawal …will lead to a sharp decline in investments in the Ukrainian economy from CIS countries, primarily Russia. Ukraine’s withdrawal from the organization will also mean leaving the CIS free trade zone’. Thus, Ukraine’s approach of selective withdrawal from its CIS commitments might not work without advances in the geopolitical, EU-Russia stalemate resulting from the current crisis.

What does all this mean for the CIS? Is a regional crisis of this depth and magnitude likely to doom it as an organisation? This author’s bets – at this stage in the developments surrounding the Ukrainian conflict – are on its survival. Firstly, the resilience of the CIS is embedded in its extremely loose institutional framework and the ability of its members to define their membership as they see fit. In fact, in comparative terms, the CIS is the ultimate institutional chameleon. Secondly, in the two decades of post-Soviet regional integration, Russia has proved that it rarely ‘keeps all its eggs in one basket’. It has invested in a range of regional organizations, and despite the current salience of the Eurasian Economic Union, there is no reason to assume that other vehicles will not be assigned appropriate uses. Currently, the CIS is also the only Russia-centred grouping incorporating countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Thirdly, the long-term tendency of region-level post-Soviet institutional development has been one of strong continuity. Organisations are frequently and incrementally reformed or renamed, but rarely completely reinvented, as aptly demonstrated by the evolution of the Eurasian Customs Union’s institutional regime.[iv] Thus, it is unlikely that the CIS will disappear without a fundamental and deep reform of the underlying political, economic and socio-legal orders within the majority of its member states. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that recent events will significantly deepen the crisis of purpose and credibility the CIS had been experiencing beforehand.

This analysis has been first published here in the blog of the Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies of the University of Birmingham, on 12 May 2014

[i] E Walker, Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Break-Up of the Soviet Union (Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2003)

[ii] Diplomaticheskii Vestnik, 3-4 (1993): 42

[iii] R. Dragneva and A. Dimitrova, ‘Patterns of Integration and Regime Compatibility: Ukraine between the CIS and the EU’, in K. Malfliet, L. Verpoest & E. Vinokurov, eds., The CIS, the EU and Russia: Challenges of Integration (Palgrave/Macmillan), 171-201

[iv] R.Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, ‘Commitment, asymmetry and flexibility: making sense of Eurasian economic integration’, in R. Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, eds., Eurasian Economic Integration: Law, Policy and Politics (Edward Elgar 2013), 204-221


Europe’s Eastern Partnership – a successful failure?

Europe’s Eastern Partnership – a successful failure?

Tanja A.Börzel1, Freie Universität Berlin

The depiction of the European Union as an economic giant but political dwarf is a classic, and criticisms for its failure to get its act together when it comes to foreign and security policy are an old hat. With the recent events in Ukraine, however, EU bashing has reached a new dimension. Political commentators and journalists sing from the same song book. And the tune goes as follows: In the 21st century, Russia and the US play a geostrategic game of the 19th century according to the rules of the 20th century. In their competition over exclusive spheres of influence, Russia got the Crimean (back) and the US keeps the rest in the West. Europe has either been irrelevant in this power game or dealt one or two cards to the US. Either way, the European Union and its member states have betrayed the values they seek to uphold bowing to the power of Western energy companies, Russian oligarchs, US imperialism, or Russia’s ambition to re-build the Soviet Union – pick you choice.
There is no question that the conflict over the Crimean involves geopolitics. While all parties justify their actions by the need to protect democracy and human rights, the bidding over Ukraine’s territorial integrity is also about economic and security interests. Yet, in the 21st century, immaterial and material interests are intimately linked. For once, in a globalized economy, the prosperity of Western democracies and the survival of the Russian rent-economy both depend as much on the energy supply from Russia. More importantly, Western democracies share the belief that democracy is the best way to ensure security and prosperity in the long run. So do many Ukrainians that have been holding out in the Maidan, first, to dispose of an autocratic and corrupt regime, and then to protest against the land-grab by an external autocratic regime. The European Union has been an important reference point for their demands of democracy and (international) rule of law. After all, it was the refusal of former president Yanukovich to sign the Association Agreement with the EU last November that triggered the protest movement in the first place.
The European Union and its member states might have underestimated the political costs of the Association Agreement for President Yanukovich. They did not anticipate how far President Putin would go to protect what he sees as Russia’s national interests in its near abroad. And the EU certainly failed to prevent the annexation of the Crimean, which could set a precedent for pro-Russian secessionist regions in other Eastern Partnership countries (Moldova, Georgia). Yet, what should the EU have done? Offering a membership perspective to Ukraine in return for political reforms would have been unlikely to make Yanukovich cut his own power by strengthening the judiciary, reforming electoral laws, and fighting corruption. Moreover, it would have fueled Putin’s anxieties of a “Western expansion” even further. Providing massive financial aid to counteract Ukraine’s dependence on Russia would have empowered a corrupt and autocratic regime rather than transforming it. Trying to reach a compromise with Putin over the Association Agreement with Ukraine might not only have invoked memories of the 19th and 20th century. It would have been unlikely to work in Putin’s world of competing spheres of influences. Imposing strict sanctions early on against Putin’s attempts to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity could have easily escalated into military conflict, a risk that seems hardly justified given that Putin is the ultimate loser of his own geopolitical game – precisely because the European Union has largely resisted playing along.
True, Russia won the Crimean, and Putin’s domestic approval rates have sky-rocketed. Yet, this is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory. Economically, the rouble fell. So have the stock values of many Russian companies and the trust of foreign investors. Internationally, Russia is completely isolated, no country likes the idea of a foreign regime grabbing part of its territory, and this includes China. Russia can’t have it both – be accepted by the international community but not wanting to play by its rules. Putin’s foreign policy has accelerated Russia’s fall from a rising power to a rent-seeking economy that has little in common with the emerging markets of Brazil, India or China. The loss in economic and political power will drive Ukraine but also other countries in Russia’s near abroad even more towards the West.
The EU might have failed to actively shape the developments in its Eastern neighbourhood, arguably because it has refused to buy into Putin’s world of geopolitics. This is not to say, though, that it has not had any influence. Despite its external failures, it is the internal success of the EU in transforming Europe into a region of lasting peace, prosperity and security that draws post-Soviet countries to the European Union.

1For eurosearch readers: This week, we present the commentary on the European Union’s Eastern Partnership by our MAXCAP coordinator and partner Tanja A.Börzel from the Freie Universität Berlin. The commentary was first published on 20 March 2014 in the Focus section of the Verfassungsblog as part of the topic: ‘EU and Ukraine: Make or Break for the CFSP?’