Sometime in the early autumn, officials say, Stefan Fuele, the EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, had a brainwave. With parliamentary elections approaching in Azerbaijan (November 7), one of the least democratic societies in the EU neighborhood, why not create a space for debate outside? Invite the Azerbaijani political leaders to the European Parliament, for example, and hope that some of the results at least would trickle through to the country itself.
The move, had it come off, would have been highly original and innovative. Nothing comparable has ever been tried within the EU, let alone the bloc's increasingly anemic neighborhood outreach project. Azerbaijan's need for some sort of open society Marshall Plan is undeniable.
A preelection delegation dispatched to the country by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) -- the continent's preeminent rights watchdog -- reported on October 21 that "once again, the PACE delegation has not witnessed a competition of substantive political ideas, platforms, or approaches. Furthermore, this is exacerbated by the lack of any public debate (including TV debates) that would help the electorate to make an educated choice on election day."
By that time, however, Fuele's plan had died a thousand deaths in the cabinets lining the Rue de la Loi, the busy road that bisects the EU's agglomeration of multiple headquarters in Brussels. Rather predictably, the EU got cold feet. Even the European Parliament, the least burdened with political responsibility among EU institutions, baulked.
Most of the diplomatic soul-searching that went on in Brussels was along depressingly familiar lines. What would the member states say, with their monopoly on making EU foreign policy? What about Nabucco, the planned gas pipeline to Central Asia, crucially dependent on Azerbaijan as a strategic bridgehead? Most importantly, what about the EU's philosophy of preferring compromise to conflict with those it thinks it can do business with, like Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev?
But perhaps these overly familiar assumptions are the ones that need to be questioned, and their limits probed. Azerbaijan, despite its perceived strategic importance, is involved in a very delicate geopolitical balancing act between Russia, Iran, and Turkey -- not to mention more distant actors. Showing a bit of courage to go with its convictions could arguably not hurt the EU. It would also do a service, however minor, for Azerbaijan, and serve as a warning to other neighbors not to take the bloc for granted. The EU's flagging reputation as a soft power desperately needs a shot of something in its arm.
Fuele's thanks for attempting to administer that shot that will now be a knock to his own reputation as a relatively safe pair of hands. (Certainly safer than some of his predecessors, who, as one official says, could not always be trusted not to "read out bracketed comments along with their speaking notes.")
The worst, however, that the neighborhood commissioner could be accused of is idealism -- allowing himself to believe in something that could be instead of accepting what is. This is a condition all too rare in the EU these days. Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign policy, needs to back those of her colleagues willing to breach the status quo -- which can only take the bloc so far.
-- Ahto Lobjakas