Can Europe Make It?

EU policy towards the eastern neighbourhood

What can the European Parliament do?

Cristian Nitoiu
6 November 2014

The crisis in Ukraine has underscored the limits of the European Union’s ability to foster stability in the post-Soviet space. Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its support for the rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine left the EU hesitant, incoherent and divided.

Although it does not possess too many formal powers in foreign policy, during this period the European Parliament has articulated very clearly its position calling for more a decisive and stronger EU presence in its eastern neighbourhood. Throughout the seventh term (2009-2014) the EP consistently pushed for the EU to involve itself in the frozen conflicts in the region and keep its eastern neighbours at bay from Russian pressures. While with every new term the EP changes its overall approach, it is very likely that the newly elected MEPs will also aim to carve a greater role for the Parliament in shaping the way the EU acts in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, the new EP features a series of key figures (such as the EP’s president Martin Schulz) who have a record of being very active in the eastern neighbourhood.

During the last term the EP aimed at attaining a more important role in shaping the foreign policy of the EU, and subsequently its policy towards the post-Soviet space. MEPs of the seventh EP repeatedly criticized the EU’s lack of engagement in the conflicts in the eastern neighbourhood. According to them, the EU’s meagre track record was influenced by the fact that the member states were not willing to make clear long term commitments or devote more resources. The EEAS was seen as a natural partner for the EP, in terms of helping it put into practice the ambition of engaging the EU more profoundly in the security of the neighbourhood.

Three claims capture the way in which the seventh EP aimed to revise the EU’s policy on this. Firstly, it argued that the EU should increase its financial support especially for those countries (such as Moldova or Georgia) that have made significant progress in the areas of human rights, democracy or the rule of law. Secondly, the EP claimed that the EU should prioritise the issue of human rights and democracy rather than economic cooperation in cooperating with its Eastern neighbours. The third claim was linked to the second and highlighted the need for the EU to increase both its financial and technical support to civil society organizations in the neighbourhood, as they are the building blocks of a healthy democratic system.

The present EP will most probably draw on these claims in order to obtain an even more central position in the shaping the EU’s policy towards the post-Soviet space. There are two way ways in which it can achieve this. Firstly, from 2009 to 2014, MEPs focused on getting the Commission, and especially High Representative Catherine Ashton to support and implement their proposals. Most resolutions praised the Commission for its involvement and management of the Eastern Partnership. On the other and, the EP was very critical of the Council, trying to put pressure on the member states to commit more resources and to support countries in the post-Soviet space. Consequently, advocating an increased role for the Commission or the EEAS in the eastern neighbourhood is a strategy that the present EP might choose to apply. However, due to the overall weakening of the power of the Commission it is very unlikely that the EP could gain by using this strategy of more significant formal influence vis a vis the Council or the member states.

But the seventh EP also enhanced its reputation within the eastern neighbourhood through a series of forums and similar instruments. The EP accommodates national delegations from states in the post-Soviet space and has set-up inter-parliamentary cooperation initiatives with them. These have been crucial for communicating to the leaders in the region the EP’s views on how the EU’s policy should develop. Visits and the personal involvement of MEPs from the seventh EP also played an important role in building the confidence in the EU of the countries in the region. This has been especially evident in the case of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in the context of signing the Association Agreements, where individual or groups of MEPs have emphasised the commitment of the EP and the EU in supporting the choice for Europe of these countries.

Finally, if the Parliament is to increase its influence on the EU’s policy, MEPs in the current EP will most likely have to adopt an even more entrepreneurial role in the eastern neighbourhood. Before the EP’s powers can be enhanced formally, MEPs will have to make use of their informal power both in Brussels, but more importantly in Kiev or Kishinev. In this way the EP could more effectively project the EU’s values in the post-Soviet space (such as democracy, human rights or rule of law) rather than be confined to the interests of the member states.  

This research was supported by the Foundation College of Europe / Fundacja Kolegium Europejskie, College of Europe (Natolin Campus) in the framework of a 2014 Postdoctoral Research Fellowship by the ENP Chair. 

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