L’Invité D&B: The EU’s conditionality and fighting Euroscepticism in Eastern Partnership

The variety of Euroscepticism in the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood is growing as political contacts intensify, and European practices expand. The increased visibility of the EU in the region accentuates various forms of Euroscepticism. These stem from the reactions of authoritarian or hybrid regimes to European intentions to democratically reform its Eastern European neighbors. However, the most visible Euroscepticism arises from Russian geopolitical discourse, amplified by Russian disinformation. By Dionis Cenusa

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

Berlin has the mission to create a positive synergy for the drafting and finalization of bilateral documents between the EU and six Eastern partners. The boosting of the political talks between Brussels and its eastern neighbors may turn into the minimum objective for the German presidency…

The diversity of approaches to European integration abounds in the European neighborhood,. The EU’s Eastern partners are receptive to the opportunity to use the EU’s rapprochement to modernize their countries economically. But troubles begin to emerge when discussions about modernization enter the political field. Adopting democratic standards is the most complicated component of the menu of the relations with the EU. Several conditions are imperative to initiate beneficial mutations in the DNA of political systems in the Eastern Neighborhood. First of all, the democratization through establishing open, independent and efficient institutions requires Euro-optimistic governments. Another indispensable condition is to ensure that governments are both legitimate and legal. Pro-European governments, formed by mutilating the rule of law, contradict the European model of liberal democracy. Last but not least, democratic elements in the Eastern Partnership’s regimes can be significantly improved with effective conditionality. Since the debut of the Eastern Partnership in 2009, the EU managed to put forward complicated and politically sensitive reforms due to conditionality – from the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation to the reform of the banking system or the energy market. These are the reasons that make the EU prone to utilize the conditionality mechanism beyond 2020.

The illiberal movements in Hungary or Poland are inspirational to Eastern Eurosceptics. The sophistication of the Eurosceptic populism in Hungary and Poland described by Robert Csehi and Edit Zgut has two directions – the EU is compared to “the corrupt elite” and illustrated as the opponent of the “popular sovereignty”. This type of intra-EU skepticism shows the ease with which the illiberal type of thinking can spread among European politicians. It all started with Viktor Orban’s regime, which emerged victorious from the democratic elections in 2010 and later cemented its grip on power in subsequent elections (in 2014 and 2018), by weakening electoral competition and incentivizing Hungarian nationalism (DW, February 3, 2020). Gradually, the style of government embodied by Orban became “a [reference] model for other illiberal leaders” (Guardian, April 2020), in particular in Poland. Recently, Orban’s regime has concentrated more decision-making powers by ruling via “decrees”, under the pretext that this way the Covid-19 health crisis is handled in better ways. This step deteriorated, even more, the position of the parliamentary opposition. The decline of Hungarian democracy is not all caused only by internal factors. There are plenty of exogenous reasons too, and one of them is the postponement of the EU’s own modernization to protect against the phenomenon of intra-European autocratization.

Without normative-institutional instruments of conditionality, the EU is unable to shield the foundations of the European project – the values ​​of liberal democracy – in every Member State. In recent debates regarding the Hungarian case, Members of the European Parliament have called on the European Commission to assess the rule of law in the Central European state (Parliament.eu, May, 14 2020). If the breach of the European Treaties is proven, there are legal proceedings that once initiated can lead to the suspension of the Member State rights. The MEPs have spoken in favor of penalizing Orban’s regime by conditioning the European funds directed for dampening the economic consequences of the pandemic. As early as April 2020, the European Parliament found that the actions of Hungary and Poland in political and electoral matters are “incompatible with European values”. The establishment of the conditionality principle for such deviations would need not a qualified majority vote, but a full-hearted “unanimity”, impossible to be reached today unless Hungary and Poland accept the deal. The leaders of these two countries are hiding behind the stereotype about the “Liberal West” that misunderstand the “Conservative East”, which according to Tomáš Valášek may “undermine trust in the EU and strengthens authoritarianism” in Central Europe (Carnegie Europe, November 2019). The European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová seemingly overlooks the anti-conditionality stand of these two Member States. Instead, Jourová expressed recently the hope that the new EU multi-annual financial framework (2021-2027) will “link European funds to the rule of law”. It’s certain that, in short, and medium-term, the EU has little chance to attach some sort of conditionality to European instruments of financial solidarity fighting the effects of the pandemic.

The post-2020 targets set by the EU in relations with the Eastern Partnership contain measures that can prevent the attractiveness and applicability of the European integration model suggested by the Hungary-originated “Orbanism”. In the same context, the EU’s emphasis on conditionality and the rule of law is beneficial to uprooting the Euroscepticism in Eastern Europe.

The Eastern European Euroscepticism

The origins of Euroscepticism are based on a multitude of motivations. These differ from one country to another, both within the EU and in its eastern neighborhood. However, the intra-European Euroscepticism has a more salient complexity and stems from a closer and long experience of European integration. Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks list seven significant sources of scepticism that worsen the perception of European and EU integration as a whole.

Primo, the emphasis on national identity is a primary reason for disregarding the EU and the supranational identity resulting from European affiliation, respectively. Segundo, the negative attitude towards the EU is common among those disadvantaged by European economic policies. In this field, the EU institutions have exclusive attributions – trade, common fisheries policy, competition policies (Art. 3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). Brexit promoters mobilized the anti-EU vote, including by condemning European supranational regulations (economy, migration, jurisdiction). Tertio, another amplifier of Euroscepticism is the low familiarity of citizens with the role and functions of European institutions, which, by contrast, benefits the image of national state structures. These are closer geographically and more representative from the perspective of electoral democracy. Cuarto, opposition to the EU also stems from the actions of populist political forces, which tend to spread dissatisfaction with national authorities to the European institutions. In the last 15 years, these manifestations were visible during the financial crisis of 2009, continued with the migration crisis of 2015 and the most recent turbulences in the health care field. Quinto, the limited capacity of media sources to discern and nuancedly explain complicated European processes also produces a kind cognitive Euroscepticism rather than a sentimental one. And, sexto, the public is adamant about sanctioning the EU by extrapolating the responsibility of the national governments for the failures in domestic affairs. The pandemic revealed this type of Euroscepticism as soon as the Member States’ authorities replaced or balanced the local responsibility for crisis management with the condemnation of the lack of the EU’s aid.

Unlike EU-related scepticism, the Eastern European type is driven by three key considerations: justification of the benefits of authoritarian regimes; complementarity to the power contestation between the governing elite and opposition; the integral element of the Kremlin’s geopolitical discourse and overall Russian disinformation.

Justification of conservative authoritarianism. Authoritarian leaders frequently use Euroscepticism as a shield against liberal democracy. Alexander Lukashenko argued against the effectiveness of European-style democracy, referring to the EU’s migration crisis – “your democracy will bury you”. Earlier, the Belarusian president used personalized homophobic statements – “better dictator than homosexual” – to neutralize his European critics – German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev has resorted to hostile rhetoric to justify his refusal to aim for “EU integration”, citing religious motives, but also the intention of European values ​​to equalize the rights of women and men.

Political struggles between power and opposition. In countries with hybrid regimes, such as Moldova, pro-Russian forces have accused the EU of supporting pro-European governments in 2012-2014. While these governments were negotiating the visa-free regime and the Association Agreement with the EU, they facilitated colossal bank frauds (IPN, February, 23, 2019). Except for Moldova, the EU is not criticized in any other Eastern Partnership country for cooperating with influential governments of oligarchic groups, such as Ukraine or Georgia (IPN, January, 27, 2020). Due to strong geopolitical cleavages, which practically divide society in two, the Association Agreement with the EU signed by Moldova in 2014 was converted into a topic for propagating Euroscepticism, as could be seen during 2014 parliamentary and the 2016 presidential elections.

Russian rhetoric and disinformation on a regional scale. Last but not least, distrust of the EU in the Eastern Partnership states is fabricated in Russia – through political statements and artificial media constructions – and then exported daily by the Russian sources (3DCFTA, April 2020). Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the statements of Russian officials and the fake news circulated by Russian media have inflamed the doubts about the EU’s abilities to manage the health crisis. They aimed to spread public uncertainty in European solidarity, the benefits of European cohesion and the sustainability of the European institutions. Of all the Eastern Partnership states, Georgia and Ukraine demonstrate state pragmatism regarding hybrid risks of Russian origin and have strong non-governmental “fact-checking” networks capable of easily counteracting false information from Russia. These are followed, at a significant distance, by Moldova, where both the anti-European discourses of Russian leaders (“traditional family”) and Russian misinformation are treated as a danger, only optionally, depending on the geopolitical preferences of highly volatile governments. Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan constitute the most vulnerable group. Here, Russian disinformation circulates unhindered, and the spread and deepening of Euroscepticism take place against the background of promoting a Eurasian identity.

Conditionality – the only viable tool for sustainable reforms

The EU has obvious intentions to use conditionality in relations with its eastern neighbors. Concerning the associated states – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – the conditioning of the reforms takes place on the platform of macro-financial assistance. And with the non-associated states – Azerbaijan and Belarus – the only viable format that allows for the introduction of conditionality is the negotiation upon visa regime. Armenia is the only Eastern Partnership country, where the EU can combine conditions both to the allocation of macro-financial assistance and in the visa liberalization dialogue.

In its strategy for the “Eastern Partnership Policy after 2020”, the European Commission refrains from any accentuated form of inoculation of conditionality. Indirectly, however, the document warns that the distribution of financial assistance will take into account “the progress of reforms related to the rule of law” (Page 9). Such a reserved way of pointing to conditionality is a logical political compromise in order to avoid unpredictable reactions from the six Eastern Partnership countries. Also, a disguised conditionality is located in the provisions related to the simplification of the visa regime for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, which must meet some “relevant benchmarks” (Page 15).

A sharper approach is taken by the governments of the Member States (EU Council), which in their conclusions of May 2020 emphasize the role of the mechanism of conditionality and incentivizing the reforms as a guiding principle of the European Neighborhood Policy, introduced since 2015. EU Council is convinced that due to the conditionality of the Eastern Partnership states they are “encouraged to engage in reforms” to “benefit from appropriate assistance of the EU”. Moreover, the Council details the structure of the conditionality mechanism, which must include “specific priority reforms, with objective, precise, detailed and verifiable criteria” (Point 4, page 3), including “a joint progress assessment mechanism”.

In addition to the strategic vision for the Partnership, the EU has a well-defined inclination to put conditionality into action for ongoing needs. Thus, the EU’s macro-financial assistance to overcome the consequences of the pandemic for the Eastern Partnership associated countries (Georgia – €150 million, Moldova – €100 million, Ukraine – € 1.2 billion) reiterates the political preconditions in the sphere the rule of law, in addition to sectoral conditionality. The EU correlates anti-Covid-19 macro-financial assistance with previously initiated assistance to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (in 2018, 2017 and 2018, respectively). Such interdependence strengthens the pressure exerted by the EU-intended conditionality mechanism, which increases the range of reforms undertaken by the eastern neighbors, and maximizes the potential of their realization.

Instead of a conclusion…

“Orbanism” demonstrates that, even within the EU, the disintegration of European values ​​is feasible and unstoppable for the time being. Intra-EU conditionality must become a reality to protect European funds from the kleptocracy in the Member States (Hungary, Malta, etc.), which facilitates the autocratization of political regimes and deprives Hungarian, Maltese and other citizens of the benefits of European integration. This also undermines the EU’s authority in the Eastern Partnership.

The variety of Euroscepticism in the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood is growing as political contacts intensify, and European practices expand. The increased visibility of the EU in the region accentuates various forms of Euroscepticism. These stem from the reactions of authoritarian or hybrid regimes to European intentions to democratically reform its Eastern European neighbors. However, the most visible Euroscepticism arises from Russian geopolitical discourse, amplified by Russian disinformation.

The next EU Trio Presidency comprising Germany, Portugal and Slovenia (July 2020-July 2021) will play a key role in paving the way for the first trends within the Eastern Partnership in the post-2020 period. The European bureaucracy has already set the guidelines for the Partnership. But the German presidency can set the tone for the next 18 months. Berlin’s mission is to create a positive synergy for the elaboration and/or finalization of bilateral documents between the EU and the 6 Eastern Partners. A minimum goal for the German presidency could be to boost political talks between Brussels and its eastern neighbors – from renewing association agendas to formulating macro-financial assistance agreements, updating bilateral relations with Azerbaijan and advancing the visa dialogue with Armenia and Belarus. Finally, the possibility of bringing the Eastern Partnership into the category of liberal democracies depends on the effective application of conditionality and the ongoing fight against Euroscepticism.

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