L’Invité D&B: Germany’s Presidency in the EU Council and the Eastern Partnership’s future: A Guide to handling an “uncomfortable” reality

The “trio” presidency, which starts with Germany, should consider creative solutions that can introduce more objective, nuanced and sharp “rules of the game” for the Eastern Partnership.

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.

The resilience of the Eastern Partnership requires time, resources, but also effective techniques that the EU must arrange taking into account the specifics of the region. The European institutions can advance their ambitions with greater certainty and lower costs if instead of idealization, they would start to look self-critically at the constraints and failures they have registered in the region ...

Proper management by the German authorities of the Covid-19 pandemic (June 28, 2020 – 233 infections and 10 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants) saved the popularity of Angela Merkel’s mandate nationally, and the openness to North-South solidarity in post-Covid-19 recovery expanded the network of allies at European level. This way, endowed with a positive image, Germany takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, together with Portugal and Slovenia (1 July 2020-31 December 2021). Germany’s trust credit can be used both for the good of the EU, as well as to, eventually, change the “uncomfortable” reality of the Eastern Neighborhood.

The harmony, as in Germany’s case, between domestic political support and external appreciation, is rare in crisis situations that the European states may frequently experience, individually or collectively. The security emanating from Germany has the power to bring a particular state of calm to both the EU market and the European public in a broader sense. The restoration of the EU’s economic balance certainly benefits Berlin. Thus, as the “trio” presidency program indicates, returning to a “fully functional society and economy” in the EU is a crucial priority between 2020 and the early 2022.

First of all, the German contribution will be directed towards the launch of long-term intra-European processes to assimilate the detrimental and branched effects of the health crisis. But Germany’s administrative capacity and personal geopolitical interest can add value to boost the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbors, within the notion of state resilience towards internal and external shocks.

German Presidency and the importance of “rules of the game”

As a rule, Germany treats the European affairs seriously, albeit in a discrete manner. The resurgence of the ‘communicating vessels’ of the European common market (the functionality of transport services, (re-)streamlining access to internal markets, etc.) is the focus of attention. The greening of European industries and the digitization of the services sector are crucial in the recovery process of the European economy, expected for the next multi-annual financial cycle of the EU (2021-2027). Given that the German share of total intra-EU trade (in 2018 – 22% of the intra-EU trade or almost twice as much as the second-largest exporter – the Netherlands), the start of transformations in Germany may trigger changes in the chain on a European scale.

However, the gap between European states in the effectiveness of democratic institutions and the rule of law distorts European governance. As a result, the quality of relations between the EU and the Member States inevitably diminishes. This reduces the economic potential of the European internal market, alerting its beneficiaries, including the German industry.

The ordoliberal logic attributed to the German political, economic and academic elite by Thomas Biebriecher, including from the European integration perspective, highlights the significance of the “rules of the game”. As early as 1989, Wernhard Möschel noted that this doctrine of economic governance (“ordoliberalism”) is “embedded in the founding treaties” of the European project and provides, among other things, “the integration of a competitive policy in a free and open society,” where the “rules of the game” are applied uniformly and irrevocably. Therefore, the clear commitments of the “trio” presidency to the rule of law and other European values ​​betray the core of the German administration’s concerns for the future of the European governance as a whole.

The German side understands that without the supremacy of the EU acquis under the umbrella of European supranationalism, the self-regulation of the European market risks blockages. Therefore, Germany wants to prevent an undermining of the open society foundation by treating the source of the problem, not just the symptoms. Following this reasoning, the presidency of the “trio” emphasizes the essentiality of “European values”. Their decline may jeopardize European supranationalism and one of its main attributes – the European Single Market. In this sense, the working document of the German-Portuguese-Slovenian Presidency calls more actively on the idea of protecting “values” for the need for (re-)democratization of the EU (8 references), than when it outlines the foreign policy goals (only 2 mentions).

The revitalization of the European values assumed by the “trio” presidency, starting with Germany, includes the following set of actions: (1) promoting the Action Plan for European Democracy; (2) examining the New Strategy for the Implementation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (which contains 50 fundamental, political, social and economic rights); (3) developing the European Rule of Law Mechanism; (4) updating the principle of gender equality and vis-à-vis the LGBTQ + community; and, (5) proposing a new Migration Pact that would require the strengthening of the Common European Asylum System.

The future European mechanism for the rule of law will play a crucial role for the (re-)democratization of the EU. But its development and entry into force is requiring consensus. In the “Roadmap for recovery – towards a more resilient, sustainable and just Europe” (April 22, 2020), the rule of law is given structural significance, as its failures crack the European system of governance and can have repercussions on the executive effectiveness of European institutions.

The Eastern Partnership – between “partial” progress and other uncomfortable truths

The “trio” presidency makes it very clear that Germany, Portugal and Slovenia will pursue “ambitious neighborhood policies“. In the case of partners from the immediate geography, the presidency of the “trio” prioritizes helping the neighbors to exit the pandemic, on one hand, and strengthening their resilience, on the other. In reality, the first objective is more feasible than the second, because the strengthening of national medical institutions in the region can be more easily separated from politics than the latter from the rule of law.

In general, in the description of a decade since the initiation of the Eastern Partnership, among European officials, the habit of romanticizing the way it works persists. The memory of the successes registered in the Partnership is precise, and of the failures, it is profoundly selective or absent. Also, self-criticism and objective evaluation have rare and secondary occurrences. For example, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that “progress” and “tangible results” have been achieved by 2020 (European Commission, June 18, 2020). But the data presented by Von der Leyen to support her own claims came from the economic area. The increase in trade flows to the European market is one of the few factual pieces of evidence to support (partial) success, as is extending the access of companies in the region to loans offered by European financial institutions (EBRD, EIB). The complications caused by the opening of the European borders created by the pandemic (IPN, June 6, 2020), for the time being, placed a certain negative shadow on the benefits of free movement in the EU, which can benefit the citizens of Eastern Partnership countries with visa-free regimes.

The partiality of the EU progress in the Eastern Neighborhood differs by country and policy area. Unlike the economic sector, where supply and demand dictate the fluctuation of trade in goods between the EU and neighboring states, the results achieved in the political field are minimal and fragmented. Several Eastern Partnership states are governed by authoritarian regimes (Belarus, Azerbaijan). Others are unable to permanently eliminate the influence of oligarchs on political processes – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine (IPN, June 16, 2020). And in some cases, we are witnessing fierce struggles between the new and the old elites, which are forcing the politicization of institutions and justice (Armenia).

Given the political contrasts within Eastern Neighborhood, the EU prefers to judge the effectiveness of good governance or the rule of law in terms of goals achievable in the future, not in the present. At the same time, the European institutions agree in recognizing that state resilience is unattainable without ensuring a robust rule of law.

Compared to sectoral reforms in the Eastern Partnership, those in the political field often stagnate or are not even initiated. EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell has warned that reforms will vary – in terms of “quality and intensity” – from one country to another. Therefore, building a uniform resilience within the region is practically unfeasible. At the same time, the striking political diversity of the region requires the perpetuation of the principle of differentiation. Inevitably, the individualization of EU techniques will require an extension of the European apparatus for the region, as well as the competence for new areas of intervention – health security, environmental management, natural disaster management or demographic issues.

A Guide to handling the Eastern Partnership: 5 techniques and principles

Local realities in the region are often perceived superficially. For example, while Ursula von der Leyen festively remarked that the increase in exports from Azerbaijan and Ukraine to the EU, she omitted some important nuances. On one hand, she neglected the fact that primary beneficiary in Azerbaijan is an authoritarian and corrupt regime. In Ukraine’s case, on the other hand, Von der Leyen forgot to point out that some categories of exports benefit local oligarchs (poultry exports). From this point of view, understanding the country particularities in the region requires the simultaneous exclusion of abstraction, simplification and idealization.

Some European researchers believe that some progress made by the region may lose ground at any time. The researcher Julia Langbein from ZOiS suggests that the “success” of trade, energy security or people-to-people contacts are irreversible, but also that the EU would show limited commitment in the region. In fact, similar to the many implications observed in the Member States or accession candidate countries (Western Balkans), progress in the field of European integration outside the EU is highly fragile. The same type of fluctuation is attested in the area of forming public sympathies, which are continuously the target of Euroscepticism (IPN, May 19, 2020). Also, contrary to Julia Langbein’s view, the EU is adjusting its techniques and commitment to realities on the ground. Thus, in Ukraine, Brussels allocates multiple human resources to facilitate the fulfillment of the reform agenda in a dynamic relationship with the central government. By contrast, in Moldova, there is an atomized EU approach, according to which local public authorities and other local actors can come to the fore, given the EU’s distrust of the central administration.

The “trio” presidency for the years 2020-2021, which starts in Berlin, may supplement the key document already adopted by the EU for its relationship with the Eastern Partnership after 2020. Action areas selected by the European institutions, after consultation with heterogeneous groups of actors in the region – from governments to civil society – focus on economic, democratic, environmental, digital and societal resilience. The traditional recommendations received by the EU regarding the prospects for accession or strengthening the differentiation instrument need revision. To radically change European approaches towards and within the region, new techniques and principles are identifiable. Efforts so far have promoted old ideas wrapped in new formulations. Therefore, in the context of Germany taking over the presidency of the EU Council, this analysis analyses below a set of overlooked or underestimated techniques and principles that have significant potential for breaking the old status quo:

1. Systematic audit of European projects. There is a hyperbolized optimistic preconception that any EU effort in the region achieves its goal and predetermined beneficiary. This can only be confirmed or refuted following a rigorous audit exercise, which is currently carried out sporadically, often with gaps of several years or only in exceptional cases. Assessing how European funds are spent can allow recalibration of European financial sources and re-prioritization of areas that need urgent help (public health, environment protection, demography) based on evidence and not subjective political interpretations. Without a strict, regular, systemic and country-by-country assessment of European projects and programs, ideas about the real impact of European integration in the region are illusory or limited to trade or passenger flow statistics.

2. Universalization of the conditionality principle. Any type of European assistance offered to the states in the region, not only the macro-financial one, must be framed in a single conditionality mechanism. To exclude duplicate interpretations, the assessment of both political and sectoral preconditions must follow well-defined criteria, included in an action guide and a concrete mechanism, to eliminate the possibility of subjective interpretations. In addition to the set of definite conditionality criteria, there is a need to accelerate the development of the functioning principles for a joint reforms monitoring mechanism, as suggested by the EU Council’s Conclusions on Eastern Partnership (May 11, 2020).

3. A strategic approach to the Russian factor. The EU speaks openly about the “strategic” and “geopolitical” importance of the Eastern Partnership and is willing to allocate money to mitigate the adverse effects of negative geopolitical influence in the region. At the same time, it shows reluctance to take a sharp stand against Russia, which is the primary source of disinformation, and protector of the separatist conflicts in the region. In the last decade, the Russian factor has not disappeared from the region but has adjusted, in a differentiated way, to the presence of European integration, studying the weaknesses of the latter. Building up the planned EU resilience in the region is doomed to failure if strategic documents are not developed to accurately locate the (re)sources of the Russian factor. Only after mapping these risks, or in parallel with that, can the EU focus on other geopolitical centres of authoritarian influence in the region, coming from the East – China, Turkey, Iran, etc. or even from the West – Hungary.

4. Combating transnational political corruption. In addition to a/the vulnerability to destructive external factors, the resilience of Eastern Partnership countries is under constant pressure from local political corruption. The maneuvers of the corrupt elites in the region are due to their access to the European banking system, through which transactions are carried out and where fraudulent public money can be deposited in the countries of origin. Identifying legal measures within the EU to stop such illegal financial flows would weaken informal governance and contribute in the medium and long term to “de-oligarchization” in the region, but also to the prevention of political corruption and crime in EU countries (the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia in Malta).

5. Growing the professionalism of media covering European integration. Often, the Eastern Neighborhood public understanding of the European processes depends on the availability of governing political forces, civil society organizations or European officials to deliver information. In other words, information is monopolized in several centres. Under such conditions, the media that create public perception are in inferior positions. Therefore, the population of the region (about 72 million people) is misinformed and informed insufficiently, or even too late after Russian misinformation has already penetrated the public space. From this perspective, the media institutions must be endowed with techniques to inform themselves from the first source and independently, bypassing politicians, civil society or European officials. Also, emphasis should be placed on the professionalization of public sector information sources, not just the private ones. Digitization allows for fast and cheap training solutions but also monitoring and correcting the behavior of media institutions that deviate. Disinformation is mostly used to the detriment of the EU. But there are also cases when opponents of a Eurosceptic government may resort to misinformation in favour of the EU image. A predictable and sustainable public discourse that promotes democratization must educate critical thinking in the media. Such thinking is beneficial to exposing both the failures of governments, as well as those of the European institutions, in an objective and well-documented manner leading to early corrections and speedier and more qualitative reforms for the benefit of the countries and populations.

In lieu of conclusion…

The resilience of the Eastern Partnership requires time, resources, but also effective techniques that the EU must arrange taking into account the region specifics. The European institutions can advance their ambitions with greater certainty and lower costs if instead of idealization, they start to look self-critically at the constraints and failures they have registered in the region. Shortcomings must be acknowledged with the same sense of responsibility and sincerity as the successes.

Achieving significant new results through old tools and approaches minimizes the chances of sustainable progress. Even if the problems originate within the region, their extension after the launch of the Eastern Partnership indicates limited and fluctuating effectiveness of the European transformation factor. Therefore, the “trio” presidency, which starts with Germany, should consider creative solutions that can introduce more objective, nuanced and sharp “rules of the game”.

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