An imminent halt in the European Union’s eastward expansion will create a new geopolitical reality in Russia and the EU’s overlapping neighborhoods.
This week Brussels made two key decisions. First, Romania and Bulgaria were reluctantly green-lighted to join the EU in January. (The possible alternative was a humiliating delay by a year of their accession date.) Second, the Union appeared to put any further enlargement on hold. Speaking on September 26 in the European Parliament, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, clearly indicated that the fifth enlargement since 1957 might have to be the last for a long time. An “institutional settlement” must now precede any further increase in EU membership, Barroso said. “This is the way to ensure that our enlarged union will function in an efficient and harmonious way.”
In practice, the call for the EU to adjust itself before it can start expanding again means that the member states will have to return to the tangled and potentially divisive constitutional issues addressed in the draft treaty that was all but killed by the French and Dutch “no” votes at the 2005 referendums. Indeed, the 2004 big-bang accession of the 10 new predominantly East European entrants — a development that was never terribly popular with the West European public — created significant strains within the organization that it cannot further ignore. The decision-making process inside EU institutions has become even more unwieldy, voting more complicated, and national interests too complex to be reconciled.
So, the announcement of a “pause” in EU expansion in order to concentrate on “reflection and reform” is seen by many analysts as a prudent decision.
But other commentators rightly point out that this pause may well last indefinitely, as any prospects of reaching consensus on the EU constitution — either through changing its form or merely adjusting its contents — are extremely slim. Thus the time-out taken by Brussels may spell the “end of EU enlargement,” as one recent commentary suggests.
Such a prospect poses a serious question about EU foreign policy — in particular, Brussels’ interaction with the former Soviet republics. So far, “United Europe” has failed to turn itself into a global center of power. Despite its huge potential, the EU could not function due to the inability of its members to find common ground on crucial policy issues. But being unable to project its power globally, the bloc was fairly successful locally, in what can be called the EU’s “near abroad.”
Arguably, enlargement was the EU’s most effective policy tool. As the “European model” remains very attractive for the less fortunate states living on Europe’s eastern and southern periphery, the mere prospect of joining the rich club helped export European values and institutions to the former Soviet bloc countries. The incentive of membership served as an instrument for transforming the EU’s neighborhood, bringing stability and security to the territories on the Union’s eastern frontiers. It is broadly accepted that, but for the “carrot” of EU membership, most East European newcomers would not have been able to successfully complete the series of complex and painful reforms that they started implementing at the beginning of the 1990s.
So long as the promise of eventual membership is out there — irrespective of how distant actual membership might be — the EU has powerful leverage and is able to pursue its strategic interests in the adjacent territories. But if the enlargement process is put on hold and the “membership lever” removed, some analysts argue, there will be a completely different ball game where the poorly defined “European Neighborhood Policy” cannot serve as a viable alternative to full-blown membership.
Thus, a new geopolitical situation is likely to emerge in the “gray zone” between the seemingly ossified eastern borders of the 27 states of United Europe and the western borders of Russia.
First, the nature of the relations between Brussels and such European-leaning post-Soviet countries as Ukraine and Georgia will likely become even fuzzier. Following the EU leadership’s decision to pause the enlargement process to sort out the bloc’s internal affairs, Kyiv’s and Tbilisi’s European prospects, never too promising in the first place, can now be regarded as illusory. The EU’s reluctance to engage Ukraine and Georgia in a meaningful way will play into the Kremlin’s hands, as Russia is keen to restore its influence in the countries that radically changed their geopolitical orientation in the course of the pro-European “color revolutions.”
Second, Europe’s participation in the mediation and settlement of the “frozen” conflicts in the post-Soviet space will likely be negligible. The only exception is possibly Transnistria, due to the lobbying efforts of Romania.
Third, as EU enlargement grinds to a halt, the role of the United States, as sole superpower and leader of the Western world, in post-Soviet Eurasia will inevitably grow.
Fourth, since Moscow and Washington continue to have diverging strategic outlooks on the post-Soviet space, the U.S.-Russia rivalry in the region will likely become more intense.
(Gazeta.ru, September 28; Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, September 27; RFE/RL, September 26)