Moratorium on enlargement seen changing ‘rules of the game’

The European Neighborhood Policy, intended to create a “ring of friends,” has instead created a “ring of fire,” according to a senior Ukrainian official.

The European Union needs to overcome inertia against further enlargement or it risks experiencing “more of the same” conflicts as the one seen in Ukraine today, said Hryhoriy Nemyria, Chairman of the Human Rights Committee in Ukraine’s parliament.

Nemyria spoke at a discussion on the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative at the “Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” conference organized by the Atlantic Council and the Embassy of Latvia in Washington on January 30.

Štefan Füle, a former EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, said the new EU leadership sent the “wrong signal” to aspiring members when it announced it would not accept any new members for at least five years.

In July 2014, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said during his confirmation hearings with the European Parliament that “the EU needs to mark a pause in its enlargement process so that we can consolidate what has been done with 28” members. The EU bloc expanded to 28 members from 15 between 2004 and 2014, prompting some to question whether the EU could effectively consolidate all the growth it experienced, or if it faced “enlargement fatigue.”

The debate over EU enlargement came back into the fore in February of 2014, when parts of eastern Ukraine rebelled against the government in Kyiv for seeking closer cooperation and eventual membership with the EU.

In September of 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he would unveil a broad plan to put his country on track for EU membership in six years. In June of 2014, he signed a landmark association agreement with the EU that paved the path for closer cooperation. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the agreement in November of 2013 had catalyzed the Euromaidan protests and presaged his ouster from office. The conflict that followed between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has killed more than 5,000 as of this January, according to the United Nations.

Füle said the Juncker Commission’s moratorium on enlargement “changed the rules of the game” and sent a “bad message” not just to Ukraine, but all aspirant countries, including those in the Western Balkans.

Ana Palacio, a member of the Spanish Council of State and former Foreign Minister of Spain, said the Juncker Commission’s decision was a “reaction” to public opinion because the EU has not effectively explained to its citizens why enlargement still matters. “We need a narrative on why [enlargement] makes sense,” said Palacio.

Elmar Brok, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that regardless of the narrative, current EU aspirants must still undertake significant political and judicial reform before becoming members. Brok predicted “not one” aspirant country would “be able to join [the EU] within five years,” based on the membership standards stipulated by the EU.

While the debate over whether and when to enlarge the EU remains unsettled, many US and European policymakers who convened at the Atlantic Council on January 30 agree that the EU Eastern Partnership initiative lacks a coherent strategy. Juris Poikāns, Ambassador-at-Large for the Eastern Partnership at the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conceded that the initiative has “neither succeeded nor failed” up to this point. Latvia has put the Eastern Partnership initiative at the top of the EU’s agenda since assuming the Council of the European Union’s rotating presidency in January.

From Ukraine’s perspective, the EU enlargement door is “neither closed nor open,” said Nemyria. Füle said this prevents aspirant countries from seeing “a light at the end of the tunnel” and working toward reform. “Reform fatigue is much worse than enlargement fatigue,” he said.

What Ukraine needs most from the EU is a “clarity of strategy” shored up by strong commitments to tangible deliverables, said Nemyria. Leaders in Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, and Moldova, hope that the EU will roll out a more focused strategy at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May. Many see the outcomes of the Riga summit as a test for the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine and other eastern partners against an increasingly assertive Russia.

Robbie Gramer is Assistant Director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He tweets at @RobbieGramer.