GOOD NEIGHBORS, BUT BEST AT ARM'S LENGTH
By Ahto Lobjakas
At long last, its neighborhood is coming back into focus for the European Union. But the constitutional crisis, provoked by the enlargement of 2004 and now seemingly resolved, has left the EU a different place -- and, consequently, the neighborhood, too. The first-ever all-EU and all-neighborhood conference in Brussels on September 3 bore eloquent witness to this.
Before 2004, the predominant view of the incipient European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was to see it as an extension of enlargement, inspired by it and possibly leading to another wave of accessions in a(n admittedly) far-off future. Unveiling the first ENP blueprint, then-European Commission President Romano Prodi said that the offer to the neighbors would extend to "everything, but [participation in] EU institutions."
Last week, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told RFE/RL that view had been "too simplistic." Pragmatic economic integration, she said, has turned out to be much more essential than grand political vistas.
The EU now abhors any reference to enlargement in the same breath with the prospects of the neighborhood. Officially, the ENP takes no stand on the issue of accession prospects. But the reality of the EU's focus increasingly belies that interpretation.
Nowhere is this clearer than the increasing lumping of all the 16 neighbors together and preventing any regional differentiation. This has been one of the key messages of the Brussels conference, which contained no regional workshops or speaker lists.
At one level the rationale for this appears perfectly plausible. Differentiation would only provoke an unseemly scramble among the neighbors for patronage and money. It would also pit the "special interests" of the different EU member states against one another, warned European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on September 3.
But the scramble for the money has already taken place -- and was resolved in the favor of the Mediterranean neighbors. In 2007-13, they get nearly two-thirds of the 12 billion euros ($16 billion) available for the neighborhood.
More importantly from an eastern perspective, identification with the south automatically undermines the membership credentials of such hopefuls in the east as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The Mediterranean countries were to all practical intents and purposes disqualified from EU membership when Morocco's 1987 application was rejected by the bloc on the grounds that the country is "not European."
Regional differentiation could offer the eastern neighbors some comfort, but the larger truth is that today's one-size-fits-all approach accurately mirrors the weight of the consensus among the 27 member states. Further enlargement is anathema for their publics and cannot therefore be pursued.
This has translated itself into a transformation of priorities. The emphasis on common values, democratic reforms, and human-rights standards has given way to a focus on pragmatic cooperation. The bargain is no longer trade and access from the EU for reforms from the neighbors, as before 2004, but EU trade and visa concessions for neighborhood energy and legislative adaptations to ease economic cooperation.
In reality, the eastern neighbors have their patrons in the EU just as the Mediterranean countries do. But the patrons of the east are currently on the losing side, their credibility tainted by the fact that most of them are part of the 2004 intake themselves. Their natural leader, Poland, has frittered away most of its influence in internal EU squabbles with Germany.
And then there is of course the elephant in the corner, Russia. It is not part of the ENP, preferring to look for a special "strategic partnership" with the EU more in keeping with its size and perceived importance. But its shadow on the ENP is long and in some respects eclipses the EU's belief in its own abilities. Russia was not represented at the September 3 conference, but, tellingly, of the two non-EU languages into which the proceedings were translated at the Brussels conference one was Russian (the other being Arabic).
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