The Perils of the Periphery
For the first time in many years, the most vulnerable flanks of the EU and NATO are internally weak, while also facing pressure from outside.
To the south, Greece and Spain are sunk in economic troubles and social distress. Italy is looking on with apprehension. Meanwhile, the MENA region keeps breaking up day after day. Turkey is drifting farther away from the EU and has yet to show how it plans to deal with its growing power and regional role. The Balkans are in an uncertain state of political promise of integration with the EU and NATO, yet growing ethnic tensions, corruption and economic stagnation.
Eastward, the new members of both organisations are struggling to deal with their own financial and economic insecurity, with resurgent nationalism and rising challenges to democracy and rule of law, as well as with security concerns caused by perceived American withdrawal from Central-Eastern Europe and the frustration of being left out of recent integration processes limited to the Eurozone. On the other side of the border, an increasingly aggressive Russia finds fertile ground for influence in an internally failing Ukraine and newly reconfirmed dictatorship in Belarus. It also pressures the comparatively much more successful Republic of Moldova - but still struggling with poverty, high gas prices and frozen conflict in Transnistria. The Caucasus is by far not more stable.
The road ahead for Europe is clear, although no one knows where it will lead. The Eurozone will continue to integrate further, looking to achieve a true political union around the common currency, completing the process started in the ‘90s. It will not even necessarily integrate all 17 members at once, but for now will likely include only the willing and able. Deeper integration and enlargement will not go together, so this will leave Eurozone outsiders one option only: join the club as soon as possible. Fulfill the criteria, in a solid and sustainable way (one-shots like in the case of Greece will no longer be tolerated) and join in. There will be no grey area – at least not in real terms. Of course Berlin and Brussels will do their utmost to never put it on paper that some are “in” and some are “out”, so it wouldn’t look as if the Union was treating its different members differently. But in effect, the growing number and strength of financial supervision mechanisms that will make the monetary union work, as well as the way decisions are made, will de facto exclude non-members from the club.
BACK TO THE PAST
For the new members, this essentially throws them back before 2004 (2007 in the case of Romania and Bulgaria), when they joined the EU. What they are losing now is more than just participation in further integration. It strips them of the one central benefit of accession and plunges them in a pre-accession state – with potentially dramatic consequences and enormous frustration. To them, it means losing something which marked their emergence from communism, something they regarded as the ultimate confirmation of their place in Europe and regained identity, something they strove for relentlessly since the early ‘90s. It deprives them of the place at the table.
Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and all the others enjoyed a lot of benefits while still being candidate countries. They had generous funds from the EU, which were also easier to use; now they have more, but except perhaps for champion Poland, they have not been quite capable to absorb them. They had free travel - limited access to the job market, indeed, but those limits are still kept by many Western European countries. Some, like Romania and Bulgaria, are not yet in the Schengen area anyway. And although university taxes were higher, in exchange there were many scholarships; plus, the possibility of studying abroad now has aggravated the brain drain. They had free trade too. The leverage of the EU Commission sanctioning their progress on rule of law, justice, fighting corruption etc. acted like a powerful tool for internal consolidation of institutions – while, after accession, the lifting of such pressure has made some (like Hungary) backtrack significantly on all these counts.
The one thing they earned through actual accession was the seat at the decision-making table – a political gain. They are now in the process of losing it, since tighter Eurozone integration leaves an outer circle of what ‘new Europe’ has always resented being taken for: second-class members. Few, like the Czech Republic (which actually does fulfill the single currency criteria to a great extent, has a strong banking sector and could join any time), will be more comfortable with this – and will opt out themselves, as Prague has done of the fiscal compact. For most, however, like Poland or Romania, this will be a trauma and a loss they will find very hard to accept. Through sometimes smart, sometimes bullyish European policy, Poland has managed to achieve remarkable status and influence in the EU as one of the prime players. It is now watching helplessly how all that is being taken away from it. For Romania, it’s mostly an identity thing.
THE SECURITY AGENDA RELOADED
The additional trouble with these states is that they are defined by security. Not by the economy, like Germany for instance, not by the strength of their institutions and political systems, like the Scandinavians, but by security. With a long tradition of being squeezed between two powerful blocs and finding themselves at the crossroads of every possible great power interests, what they fear most is landing again in a grey area of tension, clashing agendas and uncertain commitment by those great powers. When they so desperately strove to join the West, they did so in order to be unequivocally anchored to the Euro-Atlantic space of security, prosperity and mutual support in every way.
While they contemplate with worry the threat of an assertive Russia, the apparent internal collapse and severe democratic backsliding of Ukraine, the extravagant choices of Georgia’s new leadership a.s.o, their vicinity feels increasingly unstable, while their European allies are consumed by their own internal drama. That leaves this Eastern belt fretting and insecure.
At worst, facing economic challenge and social pressure, some may be tempted to open up a significant share of their economies to Russian, Chinese and Arab cash pouring in through Gazprom buying into oil and gas distribution, infrastructure projects (which they badly need to reduce development gaps with Western Europe) and agricultural land acquisitions. In some of these cases, the colour of money could be darkened by dubious political influence, especially as Central and Eastern Europe has not managed to develop a single voice as a region to negotiate even with “core Europe” and much less with these strong global players. At a minimum, security threats will put strain on the strength of domestic institutions and rule of law in these countries.
With new nationalisms and populism throughout the continent, such regional circumstances only increase the probability that Central-Eastern Europe will not be spared. Unfortunately, while in older EU democracies external challenges to the system would have a hard time uprooting established institutions, in the still fledgling ones of new member states, the risk of doing disservice to the quality of democracy is always there. With still weak civil society and weakened media because of the economic downturn, the political class has significant leeway to push an agenda which defends private interests rather than public and encourages corruption. Coupled with renewed concern about the EU vicinity, this only hampers internal capacity building, institutional development and further political maturity at a time when these are essential to boosting investment and growth. It allows for political manipulation, less transparency and more concentration of power in the name of stability and security. It derails the inward-looking process of social, political and economic transformation under the pretext of keeping watch for the enemy at the gates.
The insistence of Brussels and lending institutions such as the IMF - which has agreements in force with some of these countries - on stability first (jobs, growth, sustainable welfare, long-term recovery only after), while understandable given the complex Eurozone problems, only reinforces this “siege mentality”. Also, if the EU alienates these countries, it risks losing precisely the stamina and enthusiasm for Europe which is located here rather than in the Western part of the continent, where it has been in decline for years. It also risks losing its neighbourhood, quite aware already that the EU is too busy to care much about enlargement these days. Add the scenario of seeing recent EU members marginalised shortly after being received to the club and the prospect for the Western Balkans or Eastern Partnership countries really doesn’t look too bright – the periphery of the periphery!
RE-ENGAGING THE REGION (TIME TO TURN LOSS INTO OPPORTUNITY)
It doesn’t mean it’s all gloom and doom for Central-Eastern Europe. With regard to the points just made, indeed there is already little it can do to change anything. But there is opportunity in negotiating the loss. Core EU has no interest in losing these countries; it is also well aware of the frustrations it’s generating. Chances are that Brussels and Berlin will be ready to go some distance to soften the pill. Warsaw, Bucharest & co. should be working energetically these days to put together the list of demands they wish to advance. Far from negotiating from a loser’s stance, they should look at it as the ‘now or never’ moment to walk away with some important gains/concessions and not sell themselves cheap.
At the same time though, the partnership with the Unites States (a top priority for some of these countries) is becoming even more important now. How exactly Obama intends to be more cooperative with regard to the missile shield after his reelection, as he famously whispered to Dmitri Medvedev, is yet to be seen. The Russian push in its former sphere of influence remains strong and the US will have already realised that the Asia-Pacific shift cannot mean a total draining of troops and capabilities from a European east which remains relatively volatile. It is also up to the Poles and Czechs and Romanians to move beyond the self-pity rhetoric of an American withdrawal from CEE and replace it with making an active contribution to security in the region – not least by engaging their US and NATO allies around concrete proposals and initiatives.
Hopefully, despite these soul-searching times for the US and EU, both will be sufficiently alert to the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t stand still, waiting. Bruce Jackson and Ron Asmus’s “Wider Black Sea” is today more than ever a reality and the region becomes ever more important, as an outpost to the troubled Middle East, the crossroads of oil and gas pipelines and a large emerging market for embattled Western economies (but also for the Chinese!). If its Western partners and its own incapacity to come up with a coherent strategic narrative revert it to the status of a mere periphery, it will not be able to play the central role it could at this time, in bridging West and East at trying times for both.