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Tomasz Horbowski

On The Eastern Partnership – Interview With Nicu Popescu (ECFR), Part One

We present the first part of an interview with Nicu Popescu, analyst in the European Council on Foreign Relations ECFR and co-author of a report ‘Turning Presence Into Power: Lessons From The Neighbourhood.’ Nicu Popescu was a guest of the Stefan Batory Foundation and ECFR’s Warsaw office in July. The report is available in English on the ECFR website and in Polish on the Batory Foundation website.

Nicu Popescu, Warszawa, lipiec 2011; autor: M. Popielewicz

Nicu Popescu, Warsaw, July 2011, author: M. Popielewicz

The report you are the co-author of, together with Andrew Wilson, judges rather harshly the Eastern Partnership. But do we really need Eastern Europe and South Caucasus countries to bring them closer – as reads the declaration inaugurating the Partnership – to the European Union? And, do these countries actually need good relations with the Union?

The EU is deeply interdependent with its neighbouring countries. Recall how just a few years ago Russia suspended gas deliveries to Ukraine – it did not need to wait long for the negative effects to become visible inside the EU. Similarly, the war in Georgia: it strongly affected the relations among the EU countries. I am not sure if you remember, but it threw doubt on the very important issue – trust among the member countries, between France and Poland as well as Lithuania and Germany. It is then clear that the events outside the Union affect it inside.

We have seen it recently in the South…

Exactly! We have seen how a wave of immigrants from Tunisia cast a doubt on the existence of the Schengen area, when the French introduced controls on the border with Italy just like that. We cannot simply escape from our neighbours. We cannot hide, close the door and pretend they are gone. They will not, and what they do affects us – the people who live within the Union. Thus, there is no doubt that it is worthwhile engaging the neighbouring countries, bringing them together, and strengthening their stability. In this sense, the Union’s involvement in the neighbouring countries is not a matter of altruism or willingness to come to their aid, but a fundamental interest of the Union.

When it comes to the Partnership countries, it is similar. They just have to get closer to the European Union. Today, their task is to build stable and well-functioning independent countries. The Union can help in this extremely difficult process. I am not sure many people realise that it is the Union that is the biggest trade partner to all the Partnership countries, except Belarus. Imagine, how far away Azerbaijan and Armenia are, how close they are to Russia, yet it is still the Union that is the biggest economic partner to these countries.

One must remember, however, that the Union is not a remedy for everything. The majority of these countries are in a very difficult political and economic situation. I do not mean the world economic crisis only, but the whole model of economic and political development adopted by them. The Union could help them to stand up to these problems, but obviously the job must be first of all done by the Partnership countries and societies.

N. Popescu, Warszawa lipiec 2011, autor: M. Popielewicz

Nico Popescu, Warsaw, July 2011, author: M. Popielewicz

But do they want that at all?

If we are speaking of the societies – yes, they probably do. But they are still not exerting enough pressure on the authorities. Bear in mind that the majority of ruling elites do not intend to introduce reforms. Governments of the countries we are talking about focus on actions with quick effects. Nobody wonders what would be good for the country in the longer perspective. Of course, I am convinced that this will change at some point. But it takes time. Let’s look at it this way – a year ago no one, or nearly no one, expected the outbreak of revolution that would bring change to Egypt or Tunisia. But this year they succeeded. We never know what can happen.

When it comes to the Eastern Partnership, it is similar. The general situation of these countries is not promising, politically in particular. Seemingly, they should not expect any significant changes in that matter within the next few years. But at the same time the process of modernisation is proceeding, including economic modernisation and the role of the Internet, which is becoming more and more significant. You can easily say that the economic situation of these countries improved considerably in comparison to what we had in the ‘90s. The societies are wealthier than ten years ago. And I hope that gradually, step by step, this will become the basis of changes for the better.

How about the Eastern Partnership itself? There have been a few projects and concepts regarding the European Eastern policy like the Black Sea Synergy. What should we do so that we would not share the fate of the Synergy?

The Black Sea Synergy is not a good example, since it never really existed. So it is difficult to say that something has gone wrong. In this case, I would speak of abortive initiative rather than unsuccessful process. Bear in mind that since 2002 there have been six or seven different initiatives concerning the Eastern Partnership. There was the new neighbourhood policy at the beginning, then wider Europe, then European Neighbourhood Policy, ENP Plus after that, finally – the Black Sea Synergy, and now the Eastern Partnership. You can clearly see that there are subsequent attempts, and we give them new names and create new brands. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. I would not worry about this particular initiative. What is important is not the name of the initiative but what is behind it: deep and comprehensive free trade area, free visa regime, visa liberalisation, air transport liberalisation, and association agreement. It is not important under what banner it happens. What matters is that cooperation deepens.

If we take a look at the Southeast Europe a decade ago – it was similar. There was the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, Southeast European Cooperative Process, then the Stability Pact, and finally the Stability and Association Process. Eventually, all the Western Balkans countries went on the path to the integration with the European Union. Some things work, some do not. Life’s life.

You use the term „neo-Titoism” in your report. Could you elaborate on that?

With this term, we wanted to describe the difference between the Partnership countries and Central Europe of the ‘90s. The difference is that the Union and NATO were geopolitical monopolists of Central Europe – there was no alternative for the countries of the region apart from integration with the Union and NATO. What we deal with in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is substantially different. The West in this area is not a monopolist and there are alternatives, both for the internal and foreign policy. The governments of the Eastern Partnership countries simply take advantage of this fact.

So far, these countries have not become little Poland or little Hungary. This geopolitical game has lasted for 20 years. We see how different countries are pro-European on the declarative level, but if we look into what is going on in these countries, it will turn out that there is often too little behind these words.

There is a degree of competition between Russia and the West in this region. This is not comparable to the Cold War, but EU and Russian objectives in the post-Soviet space are sometimes quite divergent. The European Union and the United States would like the countries to succeed as independent states. Russia, on the other hand, wants to defend its area of influence and prevent e.g. NATO or the EU expansion in the East. So, there is a degree of geopolitical competition in the area and the Partnership countries take advantage of its existence.

In your report you lump all the Eastern Partnership countries together. Do you think it may be a mistake? These countries differ considerably from one another. Are there not at least two, or even three, groups of countries by any chance?

There is always more than one sub-group in any group. Look at Central Europe in the ‘90s. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary – all these countries were treated as one group by the EU. Among them, Poland did its homework, the Czechs too, but Slovaks under Meciar’s rule did not manage. Romania and Bulgaria had not done much for many years. What I mean is that it is not the Union that has determined the differences between the countries. The Union lumped everybody together and with time the countries divided into a few groups because of the pace of implementing the reforms. This division was not final – we have Slovakia at some point joining the countries which were frontrunners from the beginning. Take a look at the Balkans. Croatia is covered with the same Stability and Association Process as Albania. So what? Croatia will join the Union within the next two years, while Albania will not become a member probably for the next 7-8 years. It is not the Union’s problem. It is the same with the Eastern Partnership – the direction of changes in these countries does not depend on the package, which Brussels will assign to them, but on the internal policy and the way they will develop.

Let’s have another look. I do not remember any case when Ukraine or Moldova was refused anything just because Morocco and Syria are covered with the European Neighbourhood Policy. There were no such cases. The East is covered with visa facilitation, while the South is not, though every country of both regions is a part of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Let’s go even further. We have many examples of such situations when Ukraine was not given something because it did not implement reforms. That is why the discussion about the differentiation concerns the general matters. When it comes to the details – energy, air transport liberalisation and visa issues – there is little progress. Not because the countries are within this or that package, but because they do not want to introduce reforms.


Nicu Popescu (b. 1981), ECFR expert (European Council on Foreign Relations). His area of expertise is Eastern Europe and Russia. He holds a doctorate in International Relations from the Central European University in Budapest; in 2010, he was and advisor on foreign policy and European integration to the Prime-Minister of Moldova.

The second part of the interview will be published soon.

The interview was held through the good offices of the Stefan Batory Foundation.

– Artur Kacprzak, Tomasz Horbowski


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Tomasz Horbowski, rocznik 1985. Absolwent Studium Europy Wschodniej na specjalizacji Europa Wschodnia/Azja Centralna i Papieskiego Wydziału Teologicznego "Bobolanum". Spędził rok w Kazachstanie na stypendium naukowym w Ałmaty. Pracuje w Centrum Informacyjnym dla Władz Lokalnych w Mołdawii. Idealista z urodzenia, przekonania i wyboru.

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