Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Europe’s neighbourhood policy: who is my neighbour?

French plans to rob the east to pay the south may not have the desired result. And what is Slovenia playing at?

Slovenia is playing an odd game. Lending its support to the more obvious voices of France, Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Malta, these six are calling for a substantial increase in financial support to the EU’s southern neighbourhood, or more precisely, the North African countries that are currently grabbing the news headlines. Perhaps the Slovenes are reminding us all of their presence on the Mediterranean periphery, in case we all start siding with Croatia in their border dispute. Members of Slovenia’s government must have the shortest memories of all. Understandably most Slovenes did not share their fellow countryman Tito’s love of Yugoslavia, and got out early, leaving the others to attempt to settle their differences whilst racing into the leading pack for the 2004 EU enlargement and membership of the Euro. Clearly communism and the legacy of its deficiencies is a distant memory, as Slovenia joins calls to 'redirect' the EU’s support away from those in the east who were not so fortunate.

It is the word ‘redirect’ that should set alarm bells ringing here. The French-led proposal seems to suggest giving up on the six countries of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, of which three have shown pro-democracy leanings amongst their populations in just the last decade, pulling financial assistance from those countries and transferring it to the Maghreb, Egypt etc. Certainly the need to support new democracies in the Arab world is extremely important. It could very soon turn on its head the entire way in which the Islamic world is viewed and build bridges with the west through a recognition that a desire for individual rights and a voice in how countries are governed is not a unique quirk of European DNA. Most optimistically, it could undermine Islamist extremism.

Many of the stories of discontent in Egypt or Tunisia could be straight out of post-Soviet Europe: rampant corruption, jobs given on the basis of family ties, clans and cronyism, and emigration due to lack of prospects. Citizens in both are told that their desire for a voice threatens ‘stability’, which normally means beating or imprisoning opposition, muting, oppressing and sometimes killing journalists, deemed preferable to ‘chaos’, which includes such evils as political competition and freedom of information and media of the like that was seen in Ukraine over the past five years. The citizens of that country can now weigh up whether they are really better off under ‘stability’ than under ‘chaos’ now that they appear to be back under the former. Upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt will form the basis of comparison for citizens of those countries. The Ukraine experience gives, amongst other lessons, that citizens’ expectations must be tempered with realism, whilst not giving in to debilitating pessimism.

So, a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Mediterranean, as Italy has suggested, is not per se a bad idea (come to that a Marshall Plan for the world) but let’s not forget that aid offered by the original Marshall Plan never met all its intended recipients. Certainly those waking up to Soviet occupation in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius never saw any, and neither those in an identically same boat in Brest, Lviv and Chişinău. The difference is that the first three are, in some sense, enjoying a latter-day payout via EU structural funds, whereas the other three cities are arguably in worse shape than they were in 1939 as cities of Poland and Romania. Europe is already not nearly as engaged with its east as it should be.

Marshall Plans are also hugely expensive-just ask the Americans about their more recent experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan, which have eaten tens of billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money. And it may not necessarily give you the results you want. As with Europe, perhaps American money pouring into those countries has been at the expense of taking better care of things closer to home. If we want to look at a border dealing with the very same issues as the eastern Schengen border, the US-Mexico border is a good place to look. EU-style structural funds for Central America is a pretty alien concept there, but the results of not taking such a move are there for all to see. Mexico shares Ukraine’s Freedom House status of ‘partly free’, as well as its love of organised crime and a penchant for emigration. With a consolidation of that situation to the EU’s east, the problems associated with it are here to stay.

In addition, it's too early to write off EU support in the east as a failure. Support for Moldova at this very point in time is crucial. The country, for many years one of the poorest in Europe, is beginning to turn a corner. Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Ukraine are currently advising investors to go to Moldova rather than taking chances leaving their FDI at the mercy of Ukraine’s rapidly re-assertive crony capitalists. Efforts to consolidate Moldova’s own revolution are hanging by a thread. The Alliance for European Integration has managed to form a government, and the move towards a parliamentary system is a welcome challenge to the status quo of stale presidentialism in the post-Soviet space. There is the potential to solve the Transnistrian crisis with the soft power of reform and increased prosperity elsewhere in the country. But they need our help. €25 a head will be a small price to pay if it transforms the dynamic of the eastern neighbourhood. Europe has a real opportunity for partial redemption for their dismal failure to engage Ukraine during the brief post-Orange Revolution window of opportunity.

Clearly Russia would be delighted to see Europe's attentions shift southwards. To adopt the most cynical stance, one might say that transferring attention away from the post-Soviet space would give France a clearer run for selling more Mistral battleships etc. and help to de facto formalise the ‘Schengen curtain’ separating free Europe from Russia’s claimed sphere of influence, and allowing the big countries of Europe to continue to do business bilaterally, unimpeded by restrictive EU foreign policies. Nord Stream is now under construction, and the benefits of not upsetting the Russians are apparently there for all to see. Currently the even half-hearted efforts at engaging these countries are the only thing piercing the border. The ultimate cynic would say that the move to the south is an opportunity to kill this issue for the foreseeable future.

Clearly supporting the south is essential, but abandoning the east would be hugely risky. However, writing cheques to unscrupulous leaders and officials is also very risky. The EU has learnt this only too well with Bulgaria. Possible compensation for the shifting of funds away from the east might be to replace financial incentives with infinitely more valuable alternatives. Visa-free travel to the EU for the Eastern Neighbourhood, which would probably be a non-starter for our North African neighbours, would get much of the work underway in the east, from the bottom up rather than the top down.

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