The European Union's intense focus on the eurozone's financial crisis has tended to deflect attention from other important if less high-profile questions. One such is the EU's approach towards its eastern neighbours, which is a priority of Poland's presidency of the union in the second half of 2011 (see "Poland's European infusion", 13 July 2011).
So far, achieving a common EU "neighbourhood policy" has proved hard. In part this is because the union's new diplomatic machinery set up under the reformed constitutional treaty (the "European External Action Service" [EEAS]) has made a slow start. In part it reflects differences of view between member-states; there appears to be little progress on a unified approach to the southern Mediterranean rim, and the great events of 2011 in north Africa and the middle east have revealed splits among leading EU states (for example, between Germany and France over Libya).
Such difficulties in policy towards the east make this a delicate moment for a summit being held in Warsaw on 29-30 September, midway through Poland's EU presidency. The summit is devoted to a scheme called the Eastern Partnership which focuses on relations between the EU and six former republics of the Soviet Union (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia). The summit is likely to show that many EU member-states are retreating from the challenges the region poses - though as much from a lack of interest as out of fear of the problems which change might bring.
The EU has long had projects facing south that have been pushed mainly by its own southern states such as Italy and Spain, as well as Greece. First there was the Barcelona Process initiated in the mid-1990s and then the Mediterranean Union, a grandiose plan dreamed up by Nicolas Sarkozy and launched in 2008. Both seem to have got nowhere.
But the Mediterranean Union did give Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, the idea of an "Eastern Partnership" - a plan to promote stability, democratic reform and better governance in six post-Soviet states. Sweden backed the idea, and the project was born in May 2009 with a modest budget (€600 million [$800m] for 2010-13) for bilateral and multilateral reform programmes and the promise of an EU summit on the subject once every two years (see "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east", 22 April 2009).
That is the story so far. The Poles, hosts of the summit, are confident that attendance by EU leaders will be more impressive than the turnout for the first partnership gathering in Prague in 2009. Then, Angela Merkel was the only leader of the big EU states who bothered to go. This time the German chancellor is firmly pencilled in, while France will be represented by its prime minister Francois Fillon. Despite Britain's declared strong commitment to the east, its premier David Cameron will be busy elsewhere, though his pro-European deputy and coalition partner Nick Clegg will be present. George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, will be there (after a visit to Berlin to discuss financial problems with Angela Merkel). Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier, is otherwise occupied, so foreign minister Franco Frattini will carry the country’s flag.
All in all, the size and standing of the EU summitteers justify the Poles in a sigh of relief. The only absentee among the eastern partners will be Alexander Łukasenko of Belarus, whose repressive domestic policies have made him persona non grata. Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, will be there despite the prosecution of his chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. And it is Ukraine which symbolises all the paradoxes and contradictions of the partnership programme: for the programme is aimed at dealing with leaders while urging on them rule-of-law reforms that, if implemented, would spell their inevitable demise.
A shaft of light
Ukraine is currently in the final stages of negotiating an "association agreement" with the European Union, which might be a step on the road to accession at some point in the future. The EU member-states, acting with a surprising degree of unity, are making it clear that even if the agreement is signed it stands little chance of being ratified as long as Yulia Tymoshenko stays in jail (or is excluded from taking part in future elections). Moreover, some of Viktor Yanukovych's European critics say that he intends to build a full-scale autocracy in Ukraine and rollback the democratic gains of the Orange revolution of 2004, and don't want to see him at the Warsaw summit at all - let alone to sign an association agreement with him.
By contrast, others argue that while Yanukovych may be imperfect he appears to want to get closer to the EU, and that diminishes Russian influence over Kiev. The Polish government, usually a champion of human rights in the east, appears to be in this latter camp, and is ready to tone down its criticism of Yanukovych. Sweden, a co-author of the Eastern Partnership programme, is keeping its head down. Indeed, Stockholm appears to have lost some of its enthusiasm for the project.
The fact that the EU is so much involved with trying to solve its financial problems is no help to progress on the eastern flank. As early as the mid-1990s the late British historian Tony Judt, in an essay called Europe: The Grand Illusion, identified growing economic problems and resistance to immigration as factors which could stop further enlargement. He was wrong in the shorter term, in that in 2004 the EU did successfully enlarge by ten states, including seven former Soviet-bloc ones (the largest being Poland). But he may have been right in the longer term, in that the EU’s appetite for more new members appears to have been sated.
The more reformist Eastern Partnership states (such as Moldova) are arguing that the terms of the project should be changed to include a direct promise of accession. This appears to be unlikely for the moment. Negotiations on the summit declaration show Germany among the countries resistant to any mention of a guaranteed European future for the partnership states. The formula which may find its way into the document is an acknowledgment of the "European aspirations" of the states (for example, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova) which seek eventual EU membership.
Where does this leave the Eastern Partnership? A policy document of the European commission released in May 2011 seems to imply that in future the EU should pay more attention to relations with civil society in the east. This is surely sensible, as it is the NGOs which are potentially the most potent force for reform in the area. The commission endorses a proposal to establish a European Endowment for Democracy, which would support democratic initiatives. It also suggests that links should indeed be developed with non-state actors alongside contacts with governments and administrations; and that progress on reforms by the various states should be rewarded with increased financial support.
This is a sliver of new thinking compared to the very statist approach adopted at the beginning of the Eastern Partnership scheme. It probably reflects the influence of the popular uprisings of 2011 in north Africa and the middle east, which show that even authoritarian regimes can fall surprisingly fast. The same could be true of eastern Europe where stability might prove illusory. In that sense the European Union must continue to focus more on the eastern neighbourhood.
A big doubt remains, however, over whether the EU is emotionally ready to countenance accepting new members from the east. The answer for the moment is no. As long as that is the case, projects like the Eastern Partnership will continue to tread water, much to the frustration of countries like Poland which would like to see more progress on promoting real stability in the eastern neighbourhood.