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The EU's Imperial Understretch

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Stefan Fuele, the EU's enlargement and neighborhood commissioner

Stefan Fuele, the EU's enlargement and neighborhood commissioner

If he were a less serious man, Stefan Fuele might be suspected of having issued a coded cry of desperation earlier this week. So painfully obvious was the mismatch between the European Union's foreign-policy ambitions and the means of which it has availed itself, thrown into sharp relief by Fuele, the EU's enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, during an hour-long seance with the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels on April 28.

Freshly returned from trips to the South Caucasus (April 6-9) and Ukraine (April 21-23), Fuele offered an outline of what the EU has to offer in response to its Eastern neighbors' requests for gestures of integration and goodwill to balance the determined advance of Russian influence.

Essentially, what the EU offers is more of the same -- free trade, a distant prospect of visa-free travel, and money. All of these are tailored to a bureaucratic conditionality which, if anything, displays a tendency of becoming increasingly rigid and formalized.

Ukraine, which has been negotiating an association agreement with the EU since 2007, was given a new EU wish list of what Fuele said are "key reforms which Ukraine needs urgently to develop together with possible incentives and responses from the EU." This new "matrix" (Fuele's word) constitutes a "tool for [the] political steering" of the country and its reforms by the EU.

More Of The Same

How does the bloc expect to achieve these aims?

By offering more money, and the same more-or-less distant prospects of free trade and visa-free travel already present within the association agreement framework. In other words, by holding out a prospect limited, in current EU terminology, to "economic integration and political association." (The word "association" is here carefully designed to evoke a state of affairs clearly inferior to integration, or, it goes without saying, membership.)

This at the very moment -- as Fuele himself repeatedly acknowledged -- when Ukraine has extended Russia's lease of its Sevastopol naval base by another 25 years in exchange for subsidies for the purchase of Russian gas estimated at $3 billion to $4 billion.

Amid the intense domestic and international controversy the deal has caused -- also noted by Fuele -- the EU is plotting a course of near-absolute political neutrality. The bloc views the arrangement, Fuele said, exclusively through the prism of energy security, the transparency of Ukraine's gas sector, and the health of its gas-transit infrastructure. In other words, the only long-term commitment the EU is prepared to extend to Ukraine is as a vessel for gas deliveries.

The EU does not intend to contest Ukraine's future with other outside powers beyond ensuring the vessel functions in a well-ordered manner.

"The point I made there in Kyiv was that the integration efforts will be judged on reforms and the implementation of the reforms, and not necessarily on the prolongation of [the lease] of the Russian military base," Fuele said.

Confusion Of Categories


Fuele offered another glimpse of the solipsistic space of imaginary international harmony which the EU, conceived as an abstract whole, seems to believe it inhabits when he said the bloc will "play a more active role" in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict once its embryonic diplomatic corps, the External Action Service (EAS), is up and running.

The EAS, a 7-8000-strong body of diplomats envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty, may well defy pessimists and eventually come into being. But any hope that it will supply the EU's foreign policy with the vision and determination almost totally lacking from it at present is what philosophers call a confusion of categories.

The EAS will never be a panacea for the EU's current shortcomings. It will always remain an instrument whose use presupposes the guiding force of the collective political will of the EU's sovereign member states. And this latter is precisely what is so glaringly absent from the current EU that its stance on issues like Ukraine and the South Caucasus can with some justification be described as delusional.

What leaders in the EU's neighborhood want is quite simple.

On the one hand, they want things they can convert into domestic political capital -- money, visa-free travel, free trade. This is only natural, the first concern of every government being its own survival. On the other hand, the more far-thinking among them are also looking to ensure the long-term survival of their countries under the most favorable possible external and internal conditions. These leaders naturally look to the EU as a counterbalance to the inclement prospects offered by Russia's approaches.

The EU is effectively offering goods of the first kind under the assumption (or guise) of delivering those of the second. While there is no question its gospel of reform is well-meant, the bloc seems utterly oblivious to the fundamental paradox at the heart of its neighborhood policy -- that what it does presupposes a stability that can only be secured by radically different means.

The result is imperial understretch. To use a fittingly imperial allegory, the EU is dispatching missionaries to where soldiers should tread first -- with predictable consequences for their flocks.

To be sure, this is not the fault of Fuele or other officials paid to defend the EU's basic values and underlying assumptions, regardless of how inadequate or absurd they may turn out to be in concrete application. Fuele, as a matter of fact, has quickly acquired a good reputation among observers and officials alike for his solid grasp of his brief.

It seems reasonable to suppose that Fuele (and his colleagues) are privately acutely aware of the shortcomings and inadequacy of the foreign-policy instruments at their disposal. In fact, Fuele himself may have been alluding to exactly this when he told the EU deputies in attendance on April 28 that the bloc has no hope of making a global mark if it fails to establish itself in its own neighborhood.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL’s correspondent in Brussels. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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