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The Commission’s plan for reforming EU asylum policy is very ambitious. But can it work?


The European Commission announced last Wednesday a new package of proposals designed to reform the EU asylum system. The proposals include compulsory redistribution of asylum applications among the EU member states. This is called ‘corrective allocation mechanism’ or ‘fairness mechanism’.

Countries would be allocated ‘reference shares’ of asylum applications, and the moment a country’s reference share is exceeded by 50%, an automatic system will set it that will send the excess asylum applicants to countries that have not attained their reference shares yet. If member states do not cooperate, they will have to pay a ‘solidarity contribution’ of €250,000 for every asylum application they refuse to process.

The proposal for compulsory redistribution backed by the threat of financial penalties (sorry, solidarity contributions) is very ambitious. But can it work? And I mean, can it work in a strictly technical sense, provided that the EU musters the political support to adopt the proposals[1], manages to make the member states comply with the rules, ensures that they don’t game the national asylum statistics, and so on – additional problems that are by no means trivial to solve. Let’s also leave aside for the moment the normative issue whether such a compulsory redistribution system is fair, to asylum seekers and to the EU member states. For now, the simpler question – can the system work even in the best of political and bureaucratic circumstances?

How is the system supposed to work?

This is how the system is supposed to work, or at least how I think it’s supposed to work, based on the available explanations (see here, here, here and the actual draft regulation here):

(1) Each country gets a ‘reference key’ based on the relative size of its population and the relative size of its GDP (the two factors weighted equally) compared to the EU totals. For example, in 2014 Germany had a population of 81,174,000 (16% of the EU population of 508,191,116) and a GDP of €2,915,650 million (21% of the EU GDP of €13,959,741 million[2]), which, when combined, make up for a reference key of 18.5%.

(2) This reference key is translated into reference shares (indicative shares of the total number of asylum applications[3] made in the EU that each member state is expected to receive) by multiplying the reference key with the total numbers of asylum applications registered in the EU in the preceding 12 months. For example, according to Eurostat[4], between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2014 the total number of asylum applications received in the EU was 653,885, so Germany’s reference share for January 2015 (covering the period 1 February 2014 – 31 January 2015) would be 18.5% of 653,885 which equals 120,969 applications.

(3) If a member state receives a number of applications that exceeds by 50% its reference share, the excess applications are to be redistributed to member states that have not attained their reference shares yet. For example, Germany would have to receive more than 181,453 (150% of 120,969) applications during the current and preceding 11 months to trigger the relocation mechanism.

(4) The reference totals and references shares are updated constantly and automatically.

How would the system work if it had to be implemented at the end of 2015 already?

Let’s first do the simple arithmetics to see how the system would work if it had to enter into force in the last month of 2015. We can plug in the total number of asylum applications registered in the preceding 12 months (hence, between 1 December 2014 and 30 November 2015) to calculate the country’s reference shares. We can then see who did more and who did less than their fair (reference) share, and we can estimate the number of transfers that would be necessary to balance the system.

According to Eurostat, the total number of asylum applications received in the reference period was 1,281,560, so this number is used in the calculations that follow. The figure below shows the reference shares (in black), 150% of the reference shares (in grey) and the actual numbers of applications received during the entire 2015 (in red). We can see that Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Finland, Bulgaria, and Cyprus would have exceeded 150% of their reference shares. And between them they would have had 449,821 ‘excess’ applications for redistribution. All the other member states are potential recipients (with the exception of Belgium, Denmark, and Malta which have received numbers of applications exceeding their reference shares but with less than 50%). The total number of available ‘slots’ for transfer is 592,469. The UK has 145,750, France has 106,227, Spain has 91,589, Italy has 67,689, Poland has 54,456, and so on. Even Greece would have to accept 8,577 more applications to achieve its fair share of registered asylum applications[5].

To sum up, if the ‘fairness mechanism’ was to enter into force in December 2015, it would require the relocation of almost half a million asylum seekers across the continent, with some member states having to receive more than 100,000 additional applications to balance the system. More than one-third of all applications received in the EU during the preceding 12 months would have to be relocated.

If the UK[6], for example, would refuse to accept the additional asylum applications to fill up its reference share, it would be expected to pay ‘solidarity contributions’ to a maximum of €36,437,500,000 (more than 36 billion euros). (For comparison, the total gross UK contribution to the EU budget in 2015 was around €16 billion). The total pool of asylum applications to be relocated would be worth  €112,455,250,000 (that is, more than 112 billion euros)! For comparison, the total budget of the EU for 2015 was € 141.2 billion.

To my mind, the scale of the potential fines (sorry, ‘solidarity contributions’) is so big as to make their application totally unrealistic. Of course, it is the threat of fines that is supposed to make the member states cooperate, but to do their work, fines still have to realistic enough.

To sum up the argument so far, things don’t look very bright for the solidarity mechanism. But one might object that 2015 was exceptional, and that it is precisely this type of imbalances observed at the end of 2015 that the fairness mechanism is designed to avoid. Yet, unless the system starts with a clean slate[7], the existing imbalances accumulated over the past months would have to be corrected somehow. The analysis above shows the enormous scale of the corrections needed, if the system would have entered into force five months ago.

How would the system handle the 2015 flow of asylum applications?

We can also try to simulate how the fairness mechanism with compulsory reallocation would have handled the flow of asylum applications that the EU experienced during 2015 (provided that the member states cooperated fully). That is, we start with the situation as observed in January 2015, we calculate the reference shares and apply the necessary transfers to balance the system, and then we move forward to February 2015 observing the actual numbers of applications received in reality, balance the system again with the necessary transfers, and so on until the end of the year. (The script for the analysis and the simulation (in R) is available upon request.)

Running the simulation for the entire course of 2015 delivers good news and bad news (for the architects of the proposed mechanism). The good news is that the redistribution system does not get ‘choked up’ – that is, it does not run out of capacity to redistribute asylum applications received by some member states in excess of 150% of their reference shares to member states that have yet to reach their reference shares. The bad news is that in order to get and stay balanced, the system applying the ‘fairness mechanism’ needs to make approximately 500,000 transfers (that makes 37% of all asylum applications received in the EU during the year).

The figure below shows the number of transfers (in black) that need to be made per month, together with the actual number of asylum applications received in the EU as a whole during this period (in grey). Approximately 157,000 transfers must be made in the first month of the simulation (January 2015) to balance the system initially, and the remaining 343,000 are needed to keep it in balance for the rest of the year. The peak is in August, when more than 50,000 transfers must be made. (The bars are not stacked upon each other but overlap).

The next figure shows the distribution of transfers per member state. The blue bars that go below the horizontal line at zero indicate that the member state is a net ‘exporter’ of asylum applications, and the red ones that rise above the zero line indicate that the member state is a net receiver of transferred applications during the year, according to the simulation. (The parts of the bars colored in light blue and light red show the transfers made in the first month of the simulation.)

It is clear from the figure that Hungary, Sweden, Germany and Austria export the greatest number of applications, while Poland, Italy, Spain, France and the UK are expected to receive the most transfers. Some countries actually change their status in the course of the year from exporters to receivers of additional asylum applications (Denmark) and vice versa (Finland). Even Sweden and Hungary – countries that are big net exporters for most of the year have to receive additional applications during one or two months (see here the detailed plot of the experience of individual countries over the 12 months of the simulation).

Despite the huge amount of transfers, not all member states handle a completely proportional burden of the total EU pool of asylum applications throughout the year. While the monthly transfers correct for gross imbalances and ensure that no country deals with more than 150% of its reference share, the system still leaves potential for significant differences across the member states. The figure below demonstrates this fact by showing the simulated number of asylum applications in red (actual applications received and simulated transfers) and the references shares (in black and grey). While the two sets of bars are much closer now, and the red one does not exceed the grey one for any country, member states still vary from fulfilling 70% of their reference shares (for example, Croatia, Portugal, Romania, and Slovakia) to fulfilling close to 150% of their reference shares (Germany, Belgium and Austria).[8]


To sum up, the proposed compulsory redistribution of asylum applications among the EU member states can reduce the current imbalances, but only at the price of a huge amount of transfers between the member states. With the proposed parameters, the mechanism would be able to handle even a great influx of asylum seekers as the one observed during 2015. However, under the 2015 scenario, half a million applications would have to be redistributed to make it work. An enormous amount of transfers between member states would be necessary to balance the system initially (unless the mechanism starts with a clean slate), and as many as 50,000 applications per month might have to be redistributed later (under a scenario similar to the one that actually occurred in 2015).

The reference period of 12 months used for calculating the countries’ reference shares must be updated and moved forward every month to ensure that the system retains enough capacity for redistribution. Otherwise, the ‘cushion’ provided by the fact that countries only export applications once they receive 50% more than their reference shares might not be enough to guarantee that there are enough ‘free slots’ in other member states. For the reference period to be updated fast, reliable and almost instantaneous information about the flows of asylum seekers to all member states must be available. Currently, the latest month for which Eurostat has data on the asylum applications received in all EU member states is December 2015: that is,  at the moment, the reference shares can be updated with at least a 4-month lag. This might be too slow to accommodate the rapidly changing flows of asylum seekers to Europe and might quickly grind the fairness mechanism to a halt.

The disadvantage of a relatively short reference period of 12 month that is constantly updated is that some member states might have to receive transferred applications at one point of time and then be eligible to redistribute applications to other countries just a few months afterwards. Such moving around of asylum seekers across the continent is of course highly undesirable, and costly as well.

Although the system might be able to correct the gross imbalances, it might still allow significant differences in the asylum application burden that different EU countries carry to persist. This fact requires attention to the way the ‘excess’ applications are to be distributed among the eligible member states that have not achieved their reference shares yet (since, typically there will be more available slots than requests for redistribution).

Finally, given the scale of required transfers to make the fairness mechanisms work, the size of the proposed penalties (solidarity contributions) for refusing additional applications is so huge as to be completely unrealistic. If under this mechanism member states are potentially liable for amounts that exceed their total annual contributions to the EU budget, there is little chance they will agree to participate in the mechanism in the first place.

All in all, while in principle the proposed fairness mechanism can work to reduce significantly the imbalances in the distribution of asylum applications across the EU, once the member states realize the amount of additional applications they might have to deal with under this policy, it is highly unlikely they will approve it. And certainly not with the current parameters regarding the reference periods, the references shares or the financial penalties.


[1] The Polish foreign minister already called the proposals an ‘April Fool’s Day joke.’

[2] The population and GDP estimates are based on statistics provided by Eurostat. GDP is in current prices and comes from the ‘tec00001’ database, in particular.

[3] In addition to asylum applications, the system will also take in to account the number of resettled persons. Eurostat however does not provide monthly data on resettlement. And the (annual) numbers of resettlements relative to asylum applications are so low (less than 1%) that we can ignore them in the analysis without much harm.

[4] The monthly statistics on asylum applications are available in the ‘migr_asyappctzm’ database. The version used in the analysis has been last updated on 6  May 2016

[5] Wait, what? Greece would have to receive more asylum applications? That’s right. Although hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of migrants have arrived on Greek territory in the past year and a half, in 2015 the Greek state has registered as asylum seekers only a negligible proportion of them. So, according to the official statistics (that would be used to run the fairness asylum distribution mechanism), Greece would have to register more applications and would be eligible to receive transfers from other member states until it reaches its fair share. I will leave it to you to judge whether this is a feature or a bug of the proposed system.

[6] The UK and Ireland, by the way, are invited but are not required to join the proposed system, even if the rest of the member states approve it.

[7] From the available documents, it does not seem to be the case that the fairness mechanisms will start with a clean state; that is, with a reference period not extending 12 months back.

[8] Curiously, Hungary appears to have made more transfers than actual applications received during the year according to the simulation, due to the huge fluctuations in the monthly amount of applications registered (which average 20,000 in the first 9 months of the year, but then drop to less than a thousand in the last three) and the moving reference period for calculating the reference shares.

Key numbers

Country Code Reference key Asylum applications 2015 Reference
shares for
2015 Excess/deficit from reference shares for 2015 Excess/deficit from 150% of reference shares for 2015 Transfers to be
made in the course of
2015 (simulation) Austria AT 2,0% 88.160 25.631 62.529 49.713 -51.796 Belgium BE 2,5% 44.665 32.039 12.626 -3.393 0 Bulgaria BG 0,9% 20.375 11.534 8.841 3.074 -4.676 Croatia HR 0,6% 205 7.689 -7.484 -11.329 5.510 Cyprus CY 0,1% 2.265 1.282 983 343 -850 Czechia CZ 1,6% 1.515 20.505 -18.990 -29.242 14.694 Denmark DK 1,5% 20.940 19.223 1.717 -7.895 1.159 Estonia EE 0,2% 230 2.563 -2.333 -3.615 1.838 Finland FI 1,3% 32.345 16.660 15.685 7.355 -9.319 France FR 14,2% 75.755 181.982 -106.227 -197.217 94.098 Germany DE 18,4% 476.510 235.807 240.703 122.799 -120.770 Great Britain (UK) GB 14,4% 38.795 184.545 -145.750 -238.022 127.292 Greece GR 1,7% 13.210 21.787 -8.577 -19.470 7.408 Hungary HU 1,3% 177.130 16.660 160.470 152.140 -184.043 Ireland IE 1,1% 3.270 14.097 -10.827 -17.876 9.674 Italy IT 11,8% 83.535 151.224 -67.689 -143.301 56.460 Latvia LV 0,3% 335 3.845 -3.510 -5.432 2.756 Lithuania LT 0,4% 320 5.126 -4.806 -7.369 3.674 Luxembourg LU 0,2% 2.505 2.563 -58 -1.340 431 Malta MT 0,1% 1.850 1.282 568 -72 -519 The Netherlands NL 4,0% 44.975 51.262 -6.287 -31.919 9.498 Poland PL 5,2% 12.185 66.641 -54.456 -87.777 47.751 Portugal PT 1,6% 900 20.505 -19.605 -29.857 14.694 Romania RO 2,5% 1.255 32.039 -30.784 -46.803 22.958 Slovakia SK 0,8% 325 10.252 -9.927 -15.054 7.345 Slovenia SI 0,3% 275 3.845 -3.570 -5.492 2.756 Spain ES 8,3% 14.780 106.369 -91.589 -144.774 76.221 Sweden SE 2,5% 162.455 32.039 130.416 114.397 -134.256


The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.


Between Scylla and Charybdis: how will the Dutch Presidency connect our Union to citizens?

The flow of refugees from the war zones around Syria has become more and more a test to the European Union. This is also the case for the Dutch government, which will have the EU Presidency in the coming months. Before the EU-Turkey summit on November 29 last year, the Second Chamber in the Dutch parliament had a firm message to Prime Minister Rutte before he left for Brussels: Turkey needs to increase its border controls and shelter refugees in Turkey, and there will be no concessions on the accession of Turkey to the EU. The Christian-Democratic MP Pieter Omtzigt remarked on the latest Commission progress report: “It is better to call this a deterioration report.”[1]

The EU-Turkey summit made it clear how many European political leaders struggle with the refugee problem. Next to a package of measures to substantially reduce the flow of refugees—including 3 billion in support for the establishment of camps, health and education—there was a promise for visa liberalization. The talks on Turkish accession will be resumed.[2] European leaders, including the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, had to pull all the stops to make a “deal” with Turkey.

Whether the accession negotiations with Turkey will really take off is not clear. The Dutch Presidency does not want to relax any of the existing criteria for enlargement, as has declared again and again. It is also striking that the chapter that will be re-opened, does not follow the Commission’s current policy. This new policy puts the most difficult chapters at the start of negotiations, so that a candidate builds a track-record of its performance during the accession period. In the Turkish case this would include issues like respecting the rights of minorities and improving the functioning of the judiciary. Evidently, both Brussels and Ankara were not yet ready to engage in this litmus test.

The main question that arises is whether the opening of some chapters is nothing more than an attempt to polish the Turkish international reputation after the shooting down of a Russian yet. There is no real intention to let Turkey eventually join. At the same time, and this is the problematic issue, European citizens are given the impression that Turkish EU membership is still feasible. An important group of these citizens has, as confirmed by recent research, no interest whatsoever to allow Turkey join the EU.

Comparative research shows that among citizens, in addition to a Euro-positive discourse, several discourses exist that are very critical of more European integration and further enlargement.[3] In the Netherlands, but also in Germany, there are at least two critical discourses. The first one would like to empower citizens in the EU and make the Union more democratic. This discourse emphasizes a deepening of existing cooperation in which citizens should be more involved in European decision-making. Enlargement is not categorically rejected but is only relevant in the long run.

The second critical discourse is much more radical and points to all kinds of problems with the Union. Expansion has become, according to this discourse, too costly, the participants refer to the Eastern enlargement. Moreover, the discourse also points at the increased competition on the labor market, which reduced wages and contributed to higher unemployment rates. Accession of Turkey is rejected because, in the words of some these participants, “Islam and democracy do not mix.”

These discourses show that many are not ready to have Turkey play a role in the Union. Many citizens do not understand the recent move of European politicians to offer EU membership to Turkey as a possible solution for the migration crisis. The main challenge of the Dutch Presidency is to get around these two issues in a way that is understood and appreciated by European citizens. This requires broad political and popular discussion about the direction Europe is heading in a way in which citizens can be better involved. It requires a clear political debate on whether Turkey could become a EU member. It also requires a discussion with these very same citizens on migration and the current influx of refugees. This debate is not only a European one, but also a national debate, since these issues also affects national politics. This puts the Dutch Presidency for the exceptional and difficult task, both in Europe and the Netherlands, to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Without committing to such a debate, especially in these two difficult issues, Dutch citizens will lose confidence in European solutions, and eventually in Dutch politics.[4]



[3] B. Steunenberg, S. Petek en C. Rüth (2011) ‘Between Reason and Emotion: Popular discourses on Turkey’s membership of the EU’ South European Society 16 (3): 449-68 (zie; A. Dimitrova, E. Kortenska en B. Steunenberg (2015) Comparing Discourses about Past and Future EU Enlargements: Core Arguments and Cleavages, MAXCAP Working Paper Series, No. 13, August 2015 (zie

[4] A Dutch version of this post can be found at De Hofvijfer,

Time for domestic political debate on future EU enlargement

As Dutch media announced this week, a first opinion poll conducted by a public TV programme EenVandaag showed that a majority of Dutch citizens may vote against the Association agreement with Ukraine in the referendum planned for 6 April 2016. Our colleague Joop van Holsteyn, special professor in electoral research at Leiden University, has warned that it cannot be established how representative the EenVandaag polls are, as they are based on a self-selected panel of citizens. Yet he also stressed that the results suggest the 30 per cent threshold for the validity of the results of the referendum would be easily reached based on these first results. As he also noted the government has so far allocated meagre funds for campaigning, likely with the idea that citizens would not come out and vote.

This attitude by Dutch politicians, if this is indeed the government’s campaign plan, brings uncomfortable memories of their approach to the Constitutional treaty referendum, for which campaigning was both short and uninspired. We all know how this ended up.

Commission President Juncker appeared to advocate for a more pro-active approach, Juncker suggesting in an interview for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper that the government should defend the agreement they have signed. He warned that a Europe-wide crisis could be precipitated by a Dutch ‘no’ in the advisory referendum.

The arguments for the Association agreement need to be put clearly on the table and some of the myths spread by the initiators should be discussed openly. Contrary to what the initiators of the referendum have claimed, the agreement does not open the door to Ukrainian EU membership in the short or even medium term. As we have argued here, the EU has been very careful to leave relations with Ukraine open-ended. The initiators also claim that the treaty will lead to the provision of millions of financial assistance to Ukraine. They set the question of rejecting it as an issue of national identity and sovereignty, as well as material interest. As we know from public opinion analyses in Europe, perceived material interests and identity are the most important determinants of public opinion trends. So the initiators of the referendum and their arguments should be taken seriously, despite their selective approach to the facts. A rational presentation of counter-arguments may not suffice. For those of us who see the Association agreement as a useful tool for supporting much needed reforms in Ukraine, need to discuss the implications for stability and security in Europe and also the Netherlands (including migration) in case the agreement is rejected.

Furthermore, the broader implications of the politicisation of the ratification of the agreement should be considered. The EU – and the Netherlands , in the Council of Ministers -is negotiating with a number of Western Balkan candidates for membership. In mid-December 2015, the EU opened the first two chapters of negotiations with Serbia, marking some real progress after a year of stagnation. Serbs see this as a historic step, an achievement they have reached, paid for with difficult compromises over Kosovo. The opening of the next two chapters, 23 and 24: on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Justice, Freedom and Security, is expected to take place in the first half of 2016.

The EU’s influence on Serbian foreign policy, however, is precarious and seen by many to depend on further progress in accession negotiations. As our research in discourses on EU membership in Serbia has shown, many Serb citizens see relations with Kosovo as the most painful step their country has to take on the road to membership. The high domestic cost of concessions on Kosovo means that Serbian leaders may not be able to maintain commitment to reforms for a very long period of time. Therefore, they have set for themselves the ambitious goal to be ready for membership in 2020.

Back to the Dutch referendum and its implications for this process: if the Association agreement is rejected  – not for legal, but for political reasons some Dutch political parties may follow a negative referendum result – EU’s conditionality in enlargement would be much less credible. Serbia and other current candidates may, with good reason, ask themselves whether they are willing to pay the cost of adjusting to the EU when their accession could be put on hold in a similar referendum in the future. After all, accession treaties still require unanimity to come into force. Another good reason for Dutch political parties to campaign vigorously in the current referendum – and for the government to inform its citizens more regularly of progress and decisions reached in enlargement negotiations.



The ‘reporting revolution’ in enlargement reports: will it help overcome ‘enlargement fatigue’?

The European Commission released its updated strategy and reports on the progress of candidate and aspiring states from the Western Balkans on 10 November 2015. The considerable changes in approach and even language of the reports amount to what the European Stability Initiative newsletter has called ‘a reporting revolution’. The strategy and reports aim to make comparisons between aspiring, candidate and negotiating states much easier and to give the process of enlargement, allegedly mired in ‘enlargement fatigue’, a new impetus.

First impressions are that the reports, one of the key monitoring and reform tools of enlargement policy goes, are indeed changed and much improved. The language of the reports is clearer, the recommendations more specific and it is much easier to judge at a glance whether a country has made progress or not and how it compares to others.

The priorities and focus on certain areas of reform appear to have shifted further away from the EU acquis and to fundamental political institutional and economic  problems which citizens of the countries assessed would recognize as important. Rule of law, freedom of expression, the work of national parliaments and public administration reform are highlighted as key areas to be addressed for all candidates. Economic governance and competitiveness, as well as tackling unemployment are identified as serious challenges for all candidate countries, except Turkey. The refugee crisis and the imperative it creates for cooperation in the region is explicitly and clearly mentioned. In this way, this year’s reports address and incorporate much of earlier criticism concerning their lack of clarity and focus on acquis chapters relevant for the distant future instead of the real problems of the countries they monitor. By identifying and pointing clearly to the most important problems and challenges candidates face, the reports – and the Commission – aim to support mobilisation for reform, as it worked in the past with previous enlargement rounds of 2004-2007.

The main source of inertia for enlargement policy however cannot be eliminated by this improvement and this is arguably the member states. Governments in the existing member states need to be convinced it is worth spending political capital in discussing enlargement in national political debates and in actually making the case in favour of the Western Balkans. Having clear and objective reports, as much as this is possible, helps to make the case that certain countries have made more progress than others. But it is to the member states and their political elites to make the choice to move enlargement towards the front of their political agenda. Germany’s experience with migrants from the region will certainly bring more heated debates there and give enlargement policy more prominence, which is also recognized by the initiatives taken under the so called ‘Berlin’ process. But in the Netherlands next door, politicians and media respond to the reports with a deafening silence, even though Dutch policy makers must recognize that they need to engage in the region to share information and make policy in the current refugee and migration crisis that affects the Western Balkans and Western Europe alike. A more pro-active enlargement policy should provide an excellent forum to discuss these issues, as it had done in the past. To have the citizens on board, however, politicians should consider telling the public that the enlargement policy and process is a way to make sustainable policies involving their Western Balkan neighbours, also on migration, at a time when coordinated action is desperately needed.

After the Eastern Partnership summit: Time to look away from geopolitics

The Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Latvia’s capital Riga on 21-22 May this year was evaluated by commentators as somewhere on the range between ‘lacking new momentum‘ to ‘disastrous’. The cautious approach by the EU is explained by many with the desire not to provoke new action by Russia with declarations about Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s European destiny and the need to allow the fragile Minsk II peace to take hold. Not only are Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia far from receiving the much desired EU membership perspective, the symbolic commitment from the EU to take them as members when they would fulfill its criteria for membership, but the expected visa liberalization decision for Ukraine has not materialized either. The language of the final declaration, reportedly the result of an uneasy compromise with Belarus and Armenia (on how to refer to the Crimea) is firm but non-committal.

In the wake of this disappointing summit, it is too easy, but also misleading to see the relations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the three Eastern Partnership states seeking closer ties with the EU, through a geopolitical lens only. Coming closer to the EU has always been about domestic reforms to fulfill technical requirements and harmonize with the acquis. It is now forgotten that Central and Eastern European states which are now EU members had to work to adapt to the commitments undertaken in their Association agreements before they received a membership perspective. Even as they negotiated for membership, CEE leaders knew the reforms they undertook were a modernization tool, as an end in themselves and not only something to do because the EU wanted it. While not all of the acquis has been beneficial for the economies of the new member states all the time, the commitment to rule of law and the EU’s regulatory model has taken the EU’s Eastern members on the road to better governance and economic growth.

The best path for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would be one of reforms for their own sake and not to please the EU. This is admittedly hard, for many reasons, starting from domestic instability to the regional threats. In a nuanced and realistic article written for The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, de Waal and Youngs call this approach‘reforms as resilience’.  They argue that better functioning institutions would give EaP states de facto sovereignty  and more confidence to choose their strategic identity. Furthermore, reforms, especially reforms in governance to make institutions less corrupt and more effective in providing public services is something citizens in these countries may appreciate in and of itself, rather than because the EU wants it. The focus on geopolitics obscures this and may almost provide a helpful excuse for reluctant elites, keen to preserve their privileged access to power and continue extracting rents.

The European Union’s moral authority to point to the need for reform is also currently obscured by its own geopolitical caution. It is the citizens of EaP states that should be the ones to make the choice clear: for reforms, regardless of the EU membership perspective. Yet the deeply rooted patterns of corruption and rent seeking and the economic weakness of neighbourhood states make it difficult to re-kindle domestic reform energy. Nevertheless, the path of domestic reforms may be the only one to break the vicious circle of mutual lack of serious commitment  that the EU and its Eastern partners seem to have entered.

Immigration from Central and Eastern Europe fuels support for Eurosceptic parties in the UK

Combining political, demographic and economic data for the local level in the UK, we find that the presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is related to higher voting shares cast for parties with Eurosceptic positions at the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Evidence across Europe supports the connection between immigration from CEE and the electoral success of anti-Europe and anti-immigration political parties.

Immigration has become the top political issue in the UK. It played a pivotal role during the European Parliament elections in 2014 and it is the most-talked about issue in the build-up to the national elections in 2015.

The arrival of Eastern Europeans in the wake of the ‘Big Bang’ EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007  has a large part of the blame to take for the rising political salience of immigration for the British public. Figure 1 shows that ever since the EU accession of the first post-communist countries in 2004, immigration has been considered one of the two most important issues facing the country by a substantial proportion of British citizens, surpassing even concerns about the economy, except for the period between 2008 and 2012.

Data source: Standard Eurobarometer (59 to 82).

These popular concerns have swiftly made their way into the electoral arena. Some political parties like UKIP and BNP have taken strong positions in favor of restricting immigration and against the process of European integration in general. Others, like the Conservative party, have advocated restricting access of EU immigrants to the British labour market[5] while retaining an ambivalent position towards the EU. Parties with positions supportive of immigration and European integration have altogether tried to dodge the issues for fear of electoral punishment. Arguably, political and media attention to immigration (and East European immigrants in particular) have acted to reinforce the public concerns. In short, British voters care about and fear immigration, and political parties have played to, if not orchestrated, the tune.

But there is more to this story. In recent research we find evidence that higher actual levels of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) at the local level in the UK are related to higher shares of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties at the last European Parliament elections in 2014. In other words, British Eurosceptic parties have received, on average and other things being equal, more votes in localities with higher relative shares of East European residents.

The relationship is not easy to uncover. Looking directly into the correlation between relative local-level CEE immigration population shares and the local vote shares of Eurosceptic parties would be misleading. Immigrants do not settle randomly, but take the economic and social context of the locality into account. At the same time, this local economic and social context is related to the average support for particular parties. For example, local unemployment levels are strongly positively correlated with the  vote share for the Labour party, and the local share of highly educated people is strongly positively correlated with the vote share for the Greens (based on the 2014 EP election results). Therefore, we have to examine the possible link between CEE immigration shares and the vote for Eurosceptic parties net of the effect of the economic and social local contexts which, in technical terms, potentially confound the relationship.

In addition, immigrants themselves can vote at the EP elections and they are more likely to vote for EU-friendly parties. This would tend to attenuate any positive link between the votes of the remaining local residents and support for Eurosceptic parties. Lastly, the available local level immigration statistics track only immigrants who have been in the country longer than three months (as of 27 March 2011). Hence, they miss more recent arrivals, seasonal workers and immigrants who have not been reached by the Census at all. All these complications stack the deck against finding a positive relationship between the local presence of CEE immigrants and the vote for Eurosceptic parties. It is thus even more remarkable that we do observe one.

Figure 2 shows a scatterplot of the logged share of CEE immigrants from the local level population as of 2011 (on the horizontal axis) against the residual share of local level vote shares of Eurosceptic parties (UKIP and BNP) at the 2014 EP election (on the vertical axis). Each dot represents one locality (lower-tier council areas in England and unitary council areas in Wales and Scotland) and the size of the dot is proportional to the number of inhabitants. A few localities are labeled. The voting share is residual of all effects of the local unemployment level, and the relative shares of highly educated people, atheists, and non-Western immigrants in the population. In other words, the vertical axis shows the proportion of the vote for Eurosceptic parties unexplained by other social and economic variables.

The black straight line that best fits all observations is included as a guide to the eye. Its positive slope indicates that, on average, higher shares of CEE immigrants are related with higher Eurosceptic vote shares. Formal statistical tests show that the relationship is unlikely to be due to chance alone.

While the link is discernable from random fluctuations in the data, it is far from deterministic. Some of the localities with the highest relative shares of CEE immigrants, like Brent, have in fact only moderate Eurosceptic vote shares, and some localities with the highest share of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties, like Hartlepool, have very low registered presence of CEE immigrants. Nevertheless, even if it only holds on average, the relationship remains substantially important.

Does this mean that people born in the UK are more likely to vote for Eurosceptic parties because they have had more contact with East Europeans? Not necessarily. Relationships at the level of individual citizens cannot be inferred from relationships at an aggregate level (otherwise, we would be committing what statisticians call ecological fallacy). In fact, there is plenty of research in psychology and sociology showing that direct and sustained contact with members of an out-group, like immigrants, can decrease prejudice and xenophobic attitudes. But research has also found that the sheer presence of an out-group, especially when direct contact is limited and the public discourse is hostile, can heighten fears and feelings of threat of the host population as well. Both mechanisms for the effect of immigration presence on integration attitudes – the positive one of direct contact and the negative one of outgroup presence – are compatible with the aggregate level relationship that we find. And they could well coexist – for a nice illustration see this article in the Guardian  together with the comments section.

Is it really the local presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in particular that leads to higher support for Eurosceptic parties? It is difficult to disentangle the effects of CEE immigrants and immigrants from other parts of the world, as their local level shares share are correlated. Yet, the relative share of non-Western immigrants from the local population appears to have a negative association with support for Eurosceptic parties across a range of statistical model specifications, while the effect of CEE immigrants remains positive no matter whether non-Western immigration has been controlled for or not.

There is also evidence for an interaction between the presence of immigrants from CEE and from other parts of the world. The red line in Figure 2 is fitted only to the localities that have lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is steeper than the black one which indicates that for these localities the positive effect of CEE immigrants on Eurosceptic votes is actually stronger. The blue line is fitted only to the localities with lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is sloping in the other direction which implies that in localities with relatively high shares of immigrants from other parts of the world, the arrival of East Europeans does not increase the vote for Eurosceptic parties.

It is interesting to note the recent statement by UKIP leader Nigel Farage that he prefers immigrants from form former British colonies like Australia and India to East Europeans. Focusing rhetorical attacks on immigrants from CEE in particular fits and makes sense in light of the story told above.

We (with Elitsa Kortenska) also find that CEE immigration increases Euroscepticism at the local level in other countries as well. In a recently published article (ungated pre-print here) we report this effect in the context of the referenda on the ill-fate European Constitution in Spain, France, and The Netherlands in 2005 and on the Treaty of Lisbon in Ireland in 2008. In ongoing work we argue that local level presence of CEE immigrants is systematically related to higher vote shares cast for Eurosceptic parties in Austria, The Netherlands, and France, in addition to the British case discussed in this post.

Why does this all matter? The process of European integration presupposes the right of people to move and work freely within the borders of the Union. This is not only a matter of convenience, but of economic necessity. People from regions experiencing economic hardship must be able to move to other EU regions with growing economies for economic integration to function. In an integrated economy like the EU or the US, a Romanian or a Greek must be free to seek employment in the UK or in Poland the same way an American living in Detroit is able to relocate to California in search of work and fortune.

This is especially true given the lack of large-scale redistribution between EU regions. Economic Integration creates regional inequalities. One way to respond is to redistribute the benefits of integration. Another is to allow people and workers to move where employment chances are currently high. If none of these mechanisms is available, economic and political integration are doomed. Therefore, if immigration within the EU indeed fuels Euroscepticism, as our study suggests, the entire European integration project is at risk.

Would consensus on EU foreign policy decisions lead to ‘democracies without choices’?

In a refreshingly sophisticated interpretation, Alexandre Afonso ascribed the victory of Syriza in Greece is a logical result of what he has called ‘cartel politics’  in the South of Europe, the forming of political alliances between left and right parties to fulfil a specific goal linked to debt payments and implementation of austerity policies. The South European states Afonso refers to are not the only ones to have followed a fairly uniform course in terms of economic policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, as Ivan Krastev has argued, success in joining the European Union and following the EU’s economic rules and prescriptions have brought, next to the great improvements in institutions, governance and investment, a constraint on choices in economic policy that led him and others to label post communist states ‘democracies without choices’. Membership of the EU was a goal shared by all political parties and major stakeholders in Central and Eastern European states, albeit in different ways and sometimes, as in the case of the Czech republic’s Vaclav Klaus, with a eurosceptic tint; There is no doubt that striving for eurozone membership in particular (Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and since this year also Lithuania are euro members) has limited the spectrum of choices in economic policy, leading, as Krastev pointed out, to the rise of populist parties. Without entering into the huge debates around the rules of the eurozone and especially the effects of the convergence criteria on different types of economies in the EU, from a political science point of view the question of effects of key policies on national democracies continues to be a vexing one. The dangers of one size economic policy fits all EU member states may have been made painfully obvious by the sovereign debt crisis, but the question about continuity and commitment at EU level versus democratic choice at national level can be asked about all policies.

What are the effects on EU member states’ democracies when mutually agreed policies – in the past  – do not leave much room for change, for parties to campaign on and voters to choose from at present? This is clearly a question of EU democracy as a whole and so far no answers have emerged so far from the middle rather than extreme parts of the political spectrum to square the circle between democratic choice and supranational commitment.

An interesting variation on this theme has been the statement of the new Greek government’s foreign minister, Mr. Kotzias, that media reports that Greece did not agree with extension of Russian sanctions by the European Council were mistaken. Greek objections were only about the EU partners not having consulted the new Greek government before bringing a common position to the press. Mr. Varoufakis, the new finance minister and well known academic and blogger, provided clarification in his blog saying the objections were about not being consulted, so a question of respect. Yet earlier reports suggest the ambassador of Greece was well aware of the proposal, as all EU ambassadors are active participants in the formulation of such positions. Elections can and have led to change of positions of course, yet keeping to agreements made in ongoing consultations appears to be a matter of professional courtesy while a new government has the time to take a more active stance. The debacle with the Greek position on the extension of Russian sanctions appeared to be a case very important for the new Greek government, so one cannot blame commentators for wondering whether a change to a pro-Russia stance was on the cards.

Governments can and have dissented from common EU positions on foreign policy before, sometimes for many years, as the Greek position on the name of one of its neighbours shows. In this case, given that foreign policy decisions at this level in the EU are always based on unanimity (unless the devilishly complicated constructive abstention provisions are evoked) Greece as a member state and a democracy clearly has a choice, just like a number of Central and Eastern European states have followed their own foreign policy course, leading a famously irate former French President Chirac to comment that  when they signed letters backing the US position in Iraq in 2003, CEE states missed ‘ a good opportunity to keep quiet’. The question in the case of the EU’s stance towards Russia at the moment is whether it is possible for the new Greek government to respond to certain expectations or pro-Russian feelings that some of Syriza’s electorate may cherish without squandering good will that Greece may need from its partners on other issues. In other words, it may be a question not of respect, but of democracy and diplomacy.

Coming up: What do citizens make of enlargement?

We have been quiet in eurosearch, as we have been busy completing data collection under our ongoing project, MAXCAP‘s workpackage dealing with citizens’ perceptions and understandings of enlargement. The Leiden team and our collaborators from the Balkan Civil Society Development Network, the Free University of Berlin, Sofia University ‘Kliment Ochridski’ and many other colleagues committed to help with this project have worked hard to complete data collection from six countries. During the two stages of MAXCAP field work, we have gathered and filtered more than 8000 statements in 6 languages, visited 70 locations (you can see them here and here) – villages, towns and cities in Bulgaria, FYROM, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland and Serbia and interviewed more than 500 citizens of different backgrounds. The focus groups and interviews we conducted followed the steps prescribed by Q methodology,  seeking to understand what citizens of these countries make of enlargements past and future in a manner that left participants to interact with us and shape the data with their views. Our goal was to let citizens speak about what they expected, understood and felt about the 2004-2007 enlargement of the EU, but also about possible enlargements to come. The focus groups and interviews were an enjoyable and interactive experience in themselves for all of us and one thing we already discovered is that for most citizens of the member states that have joined the EU recently and for candidates, enlargement is closely interlinked with European integration, but for citizens of the older member states, this is not always the case and there is a clearer distinction by what we call in the EU literature widening and deepening.

We are currently analyzing our second stage interviews with 240 participants (40 subjects per country) and we are looking forward to discussing some first, very preliminary results of the analyses, at the House of Europe in the Hague on 14 January 2015. We would be happy if readers of this blog interested in our work  and able to do so would join us, you can find details of the event here. For those of you farther away, we will be publishing results as working papers in the coming year. The MAXCAP working paper series is being actively updated with lots of interesting work also from other teams of the project and our latest newsletter came out in December and may also be worth a visit.

More generally, I would like to wish you all a successful and interesting 2015 in which we can all follow our common interest in European politics, economics and societies and especially in the EU’s neighbourhood.

Time for a different approach to enlargement: can accession in the Western Balkans be given a new impulse for change?

The Western Balkans accession process is getting some new energy and commitment these days, but not from the ‘usual suspects’ responsible for enlargement negotiations and reforms. A group of academics and analysts from the region and further afield in Europe, united in the platform entitled ‘Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’ have produced a new policy paper, containing an analysis of the state of play of enlargement talks with the Western Balkans candidate and aspirant EU members.

The paper is good news: but not because the analysis they present in it gives us much cause for optimism. Just the opposite: they present a harsh picture of rent seeking elites that, despite paying lip service to the twin objectives of reform and EU membership, still use ethno-nationalist rhetoric to mobilise eletorates and preserve their own political power. The authors are no more optimistic about the European Union, which in its turn, according to them, is playing a game of ‘conditionality stretching’ that, by making conditions for moving to the next stage of accession negotiations ever more elaborate, reinforces the feeling of stagnation and backsliding in the Western Balkans accession process. EU elites, as the paper suggests, are preoccupied with EU’s own crisis and the consequences of the financial and economic crisis make immigration and free movement questions especially sensitive. And still despite this bleak picture which any scholar and commentator working in the region would recognize, the paper is good news because its pro-active stand, its willingness to name obstacles and to propose scenarios for moving forward, represent much of the independent drive that is needed to make enlargement a success against the odds.

In the MAXCAP project and in various other research networks and policy analysis centers, scholars and analysts are still trying to evaluate the Eastern enlargement and highlight its lessons. Yet it would not be premature to say that the lessons of enlargement in the past (especially the 2004-2007) rounds teach us that the process only gets a positive dynamic if there are reform minded elites of some kind who persist of pushing it forward. Testimonials of participants in the Eastern enlargement – negotiators, key policy makers – suggest that there were many points where the European Union’s leaders mistrusted accession candidates and were reluctant to allow them to move to the next stage, yet commitment to the goal of joining the EU by reformist politicians went a long way to overcome obstacles and initiate reforms. So even though the Eastern enlargement – consisting of the 2004 and 2007 rounds and Croatia in 2013 – started in a much more favourable geopolitical context than the current Western Balkans process, it also had its bottlenecks and setbacks and moments when it seemed it was going nowhere. The efforts of all kinds of people and organizations – from the negotiators that played such an important role in this process to working groups in ministries, to NGOs, businesses in the EU and in the candidate states, and not least, citizens were needed to make that enlargement happen.

Today we are much more fixated on policy conditionality and what the EU can do to stretch out the process even further so that candidates may be pushed to reform. But being stuck on a specific condition or a bilateral issue that has become so fossilized it is impossible to resolve – makes this extensive conditionality part of the vicious circle of enlargement. Where in the past it was about pushing a government in the direction of reforms, nowadays it appears almost that EU governments insist on more and more conditionality as a way to channel their mistrust in future enlargements. Processwise, conditions become institutionalized when they have played a role in negotiations with one country and then past conditions have become a part of the enlargement method. Between all these conditions and the politics of setting them, comparison between countries becomes a lost cause. In the absence of a common push from the EU side, bilateral problems dominate the process.

So in this bleak moment the Balkans in Europe Policy group offers four scenarios for the future of the accession process in the Western Balkans: 1/ business as usual, 2/following Turkey’s path and alienation from the EU 3/ abandoning enlargement and new unpredictability in the Western Balkans and 4/ the Balkans Big bang. The authors argue that creating conditions for a Balkan big bang, their preferred scenario, should not be impossible even in today’s unfavourable EU context. Fewer conditions, posed after talks have started and not prior to their start and more transparent competition between the aspiring and candidate states may be the way to reinvigorate the process. Despite the criticism for conditionality, in my view such a change would require a shift in the member states’ approach and not so much the Commission’s. What is clear is that the current approach to enlargement – as the paper’s authors call it ‘business as usual’ – is not leading to much progress in reforms that would make the countries of the Western Balkans more democratic and prosperous or better neighbours for the EU. Time to try something else?

Dealing with Turkey after Ukraine: could a new type of Union be forged?

The European Union’s confidence in its reach and attractiveness to its neighbours will never be the same after the events in Ukraine at the end of 2013. Even if there are few explicit signs yet that the years of inertia when the EU happily followed the tried and tested enlargement method are coming to an end, the realization must be dawning on European leaders that not only President Putin, but also other leaders of important EU neighbours are playing a different geopolitical game than the EU’s neighbourhood policy envisaged. Using enlargement as the most successful foreign policy tool the EU has had in the past decade may be dangerously inadequate in the current situation. The question is whether relations with Turkey, the largest and most geopolitically important of the countries currently negotiating for membership, should be reconsidered in the light of the dramatically changed global environment.

When former Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused to sign the long-negotiated Association agreement with the EU in Vilnius in November 2013, he appeared to EU leaders as someone who had been living in another world. And so he had. His power base was rooted in a personalized network, in a regime that had been increasingly turning from a formal democracy to an openly neo-patrimonial oligarchy. Confronted with Ukraine’s domestic elites and institutions, the European Union’s conditionality approach had a negligible impact in driving reforms. . The fact that Ukrainian elites, including the ones linked to previous President Yushchenko, were not in a hurry to implement the reforms the EU required, should have served as a wake up call for the European Union even before the Vilnius summit.

For all the differences between the EU’s Neighbourhood policy and enlargement, conditionality – trading domestic reforms for progress in negotiations – remains the cornerstone of the EU’s approach. But can it still work as it did in the past? During the Eastern enlargement of 2004-2007, there were several mechanisms underlying conditionality’s success. Next to a fairly credible accession promise on the EU’s side, domestically, both rational factors and socialization mechanisms worked to support EU demands for reform. As Central and Eastern European (CEE) politicians assured their electorates that they were working to ‘return to Europe’, rational cost-benefit calculations were strengthened by pre-existing socialization. The success of EU conditionality in Eastern Europe in the past was ultimately ensured by the fact that domestic leaders derived their own legitimation from following a path of Euro-Atlantic integration. This pre-existing socialization and the domestic institutional structure of the CEE states worked to complement EU demands and kept the process going. Such pre-existing socialization and favourable global context no longer exist for any accession candidate, with the possible exception of Serbia.

Despite the increasing resistance of candidate countries to reforming their domestic political institutions and policies, the EU’s enlargement strategy as it has evolved since 2011, includes even more ‘strict but fair’ conditionality rather than a reconsideration of it. Adding more steps in the process of accession and benchmarks for difficult chapters works when a country is well on its way to membership, as Croatia was. Despite the clear normative logic behind it, a similar approach has not worked in the negotiations of the Association agreement with Ukraine and it will most likely continue to be problematic for Turkey. Looking back at the last quarter century of enlargement, Heather Grabbe noted the EU’s gravitational pull has been remarkable, but that we have reached the end of the EU’s monopoly on transformative power . It is time to reassess the EU’s approach vis-à-vis its neighbours and partners.

What are the implications of this reassessment for relations between the EU and Turkey?

As Maniokas and Žeruolis have recently argued, enlargement is not a recipe for a successful foreign policy in general. Nowhere is this truer than for the EU and Turkey. Turkey’s negotiation process has been stuck in a stalemate since 2008. Even though formal negotiations have restarted in 2012 with a ‘positive agenda’ approach intended by the EU ‘to bring fresh dynamics into Turkey-EU relations’ and chapter 22 on regional policy has been opened, there has been no solution for the problems that led to this stalemate in the first place.

More importantly, the enlargement method does not work for the purpose of taking the next step to closer relations with Turkey demanded by the unfolding security threats in Europe, in Syria and elsewhere. The enlargement method, fixated as it is on a sequencing of chapters and harmonizing legislation with the EU’s own regulatory model, does not allow much flexibility to set different priorities. The enlargement method is not a foreign policy strategy adequate to the current situation in Europe and beyond.

The European Commission has recognized this and stressed Turkey’s role as a strategic partner in last year’s progress report. Yet at the same time, the Commission stated that the Positive Agenda adopted in 2012 is not a substitute for negotiations. However, in the light of developments in Ukraine and in Syria, we need to ask the opposite question, namely, whether negotiations are a good substitute for foreign policy. In contrast to the Commission’s view, I would argue the accession process is no longer the most suitable framework for EU-Turkey relations.

There are three main reasons for this: first, the dynamics of the accession process, second, the character and content of the acquis and third, the larger geopolitical picture in Europe and the expansion of Russian interests through, among others, the Eurasian Customs Union.

The dynamics of EU-Turkey negotiations have become largely negative, by the sheer virtue of being blocked for such a long time. Furthermore, if we accept that domestic elites and their socialization matter more than we previously realised, we need to ask ourselves whether Turkey’s new elites, led by Prime Minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are interested going along with EU conditions. Until a few weeks ago, this question would have been answered in the negative, based on Turkish reactions to EU criticism of the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi park protests and their coverage in social media platforms. However, on 18 September 2014, Turkey announced a new strategy to accelerate its accession process, including constitutional reforms and a public relations campaign. While first reports of this strategy indicate a change of tone and a greater commitment to dialogue with the EU on political reform, the European Union’s ability to respond to such changes, were they indeed to take place, remains very limited.

The EU’s credibility in relation to Turkey’s accession is diminished due to the EU’s own enlargement fatigue and negative public opinion trends towards Turkey as a potential member in several large member states. Even with the rising external threats from Russia and Syria, a substantial group of EU member states still inward looking with government policies responding to electorates for whom immigration rather than external security are seen as the biggest threat.

There is, however, little doubt that the European Union should re-evaluate its relationship with all its neighbours in the light of Russia’s new expansionism. Developments in Ukraine have shown that the EU should consider President Putin’s Russia as a rival on the continent. Given the pro-active Russian stance towards Ukraine and previously Georgia, it is not too far fetched to anticipate that Putin may have an expansive strategy for other Black Sea neighbours, such as Turkey. Turkey being a NATO member and a strong military power, Russia may seek closer ties in energy and trade to attract Turkey towards its orbit.

A rapprochement between Turkey and Russia may not be as unrealistic as its sounds. For one thing, even if Russia’s takeover of the Crimea affected the Crimean Tatars considerably, Turkish official reaction to their problems has been less vigorous than could have been expected.

Furthermore, similarities between the Russian and Turkish ideas of statehood might become more important especially if Turkey continues to feel rejected by the European Union. It is possible to imagine President Erdoğan having sympathy for Putin’s drive to reassert Russia’s role in the international arena as a way to anchor his popularity at home. It is also not unlikely that Erdoğan, Turkey’s most influential conservative politician, may find common ground with Putin the conservative. The Russian President has been positioning himself as the defender of conservative values, against the European Union as the ‘overly liberal’, ‘too tolerant’ other. This social conservatism may serve as a common ideological platform between Russia and some Turkish elites as it has already served to create common ground between Putin and the European far right. The spillover to geopolitical or trade issues may be both unexpected and disastrous for the European Union.

During the Minsk summit of the Eurasian Customs Union in October last year, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbaev was quoted as saying that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan had enquired about joining the Eurasian Customs Union. Such an eventuality may currently seem far-fetched, but its potential repercussions should be considered nonetheless.

Again, the recent example of Ukraine’s Association agreement with the EU and Russia’s attempts to have it amended is instructive. In September 2014, Russia attempted to re-negotiate the content and implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and especially its trade part, arguing that the trade provisions were incompatible with Ukraine’s participation in the Eurasian Customs Union. Russia submitted а long list of amendments to the already signed agreement, the main thrust of which were demands to exclude a number of goods from its coverage, about 20 per cent of all included goods.

Current agreements regarding the Customs Union between the EU and Turkey envisage that Turkey would align itself with the acquis of the Union with regard to industrial standards. Given Russian insistence on the importance of standards used in the Eurasian Union, both trade and political incompatibilities would mean Turkey would need to choose one of the regional trade blocks, but not both.

Even if Turkey’s reported interest in the Eurasian Union may currently be just another expression of frustration with the EU and the stalemate in the accession negotiations, the very existence of the Eurasian Customs Union, means the EU will not be the only game in regional integration in Europe any more. The European Union should strengthen its relations with Turkey to prevent more serious moves in the direction of the Eurasian Union.

The enlargement process as it currently is, can become an impediment to this goal, in several ways. First of all, despite resuming negotiations in November 2013, they are viewed by an increasing number of politicians in the EU member states as open-ended. It would not be an exaggeration to call them a dead end, especially if EU’s democracy standards continue to clash with the policies of Turkish leaders on civil society or the media. Even if they take a course of implementing further reforms in democratic governance, the EU is not able to make its promise of accession a reality, given the broad differences of opinion between member states on Turkish accession.

Next to this, the process and content of accession negotiations do not allow more flexible integration where there are common interests or needs. In terms of content, the bulk of the acquis are still market regulations based on bargains struck between the member states in the past. The EU’s enlargement method does not choose between acquis areas. Differences in sequencing are hardly a solution to this. While the Commission’s enlargement strategy for the 2004-2007 accession round relied on opening ‘easy’ chapters first to build progress and momentum and the revised strategy applied to Croatia started with ‘difficult’ rule of law chapters, keeping them open to the end, neither makes much sense as a short and medium term response to the geopolitical challenges the EU and Turkey face today.

The EU should aim to make a strategy and a foreign policy for Turkey taking these current challenges, especially the violent conflict in Syria, hostilities in Eastern Ukraine and the repercussions of the sanctions against Russia, into account. This would require two substantial adjustments in current thinking. First, both European and Turkish elites have to find a way to accept that accession will not happen. This should not mean giving up on trade and the Customs Union or offending and alienating Turkish elites: just the opposite. The goal of accession should be replaced with a form of functional Union , building on the existing Customs Union and providing both sides with support in handling the geopolitical problems they are faced with. A key difference with the current approach would be that it would not be based on a sequential adoption of existing acquis chapters, but on agreements to integrate deeply in specific, narrowly defined policy areas.

The formation of such a functional Union involving cooperation in specific policy areas, next to the Customs Union would be a form of differential integration. This would involve a second adjustment to current thinking. Instead of working through the acquis, the EU and Turkey could pick the policy areas in which each partner needs cooperation with the other and start from there. Policies to deal with refugees and asylum seekers, regional support for Turkish regions affected by the Syrian conflict, a joint policy supporting the rights of Crimean Tatars, joint policy on the conflict in Ukraine and trade arrangements in response to the Russian import sanctions could each be the subject of narrow, but deep cooperation. Another cluster of integrated policies could cover aspects of security not covered by NATO, such as economic security, energy security and energy routes. The EU’s values on freedom of expression, human rights and democracy do not need to be abandoned, but could be included as part of the issue linkages which would inevitably occur during negotiations. Such a differential EU-Turkey Union would be formed on the basis of equal negotiations, rather than the asymmetric enlargement method. The substitution of more equal negotiations for the currently ineffective enlargement method may in itself send a signal to Turkey that it is taken seriously as an important partner in trade and security and an important regional geopolitical power. In these precarious times, it is crucial that policy makers in the European Union ensure that the Union has a united front with Turkey on the future of Europe.

A shorter version of this commentary has been first published in the Global Turkey in Europe series of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and can be accessed here.

Postponing the implementation of the trade part of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement: Pragmatism or Surrender

After a long absence, we come back with an insightful analysis of the implications of the postponement of the implementation of the Trade part of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement by guest authors from Birmingham University

Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk

Few bilateral agreements have had such a turbulent history and implications as the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. The refusal to sign the agreement by then president Yanukovych triggered massive protests in Ukraine resulting in his overthrow in February 2014. This in turn provoked Russia’s response: annexing Crimea and fuelling separatism in Eastern Ukraine, including direct military incursion in August 2014.

Importantly, the Agreement envisages a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which entails tariff changes but also provides for Ukraine’s integration into the EU single market. Russia has objected to both, alleging potential damage to its economy. Clearly, an important aspect of this ‘damage’ lies in the fact that the DCFTA precludes Ukraine’s membership into the Eurasian integration bloc, something which Russia has actively sought and presented as a viable (and indeed preferable) alternative to integration with the EU.

Asserting its independence, Ukraine signed the Agreement in June 2014. Russia’s opposition to it intensified over the summer leading to its delayed ratification. Trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia negotiations continued against the backdrop of military intervention and threats of a trade war against Ukraine. Indeed, Russia’s demands have been far-reaching including a revision of the already signed agreement. The Russian government has in fact drafted amendments to substantive terms in somebody else’s agreement.

The tri-lateral negotiations resulted in compromise: the Agreement was ratified by the Ukrainian and European parliaments, but implementation of the key trade-related part (the DCFTA), was suspended until the end of 2015 due to ‘Russia’s concerns’. This middle ground is already proving to be unstable, with Russia reinforcing its demands for legal revisions and the exclusion of 2,000 commodities from the free trade regime. To assert its position, it has imposed tariffs with suspended application to mirror the EU’s approach. Furthermore, in a spectacular U-turn, it seems that at least the outgoing Commission President Barroso is not averse to the thought of revising an agreement that has been signed and ceremoniously ratified.

Who favoured this ‘compromise’ and why it was adopted still needs to be fully clarified. EU officials indicate that it was requested by the Ukrainian side concerned about the economic and social implications of Russia’s trade sanctions. Similarly, there was pressure from EU member states putting a premium on ‘appeasement’, or the ‘normalisation’ of relations with Russia and an end to the costly spiral of reciprocal economic sanctions. Despite what is undoubtedly a complex background story, the postponement of the agreement was labelled ‘business as usual’. If anything, the EU’s response to Russia’s pressure for a say on EU-Ukraine’s relations was presented as a success, on the grounds that ratification had taken place without ‘a single word having been changed’. As Elmar Brok, a veteran member of the European Parliament put it:
‘… this process [i.e. negotiations] has been concluded. And the Russians are part of it. They were there for the negotiations. It’s all coming into force. It’s just being implemented incrementally, as is often the case with contracts. From the legal point of view, the whole contract will be enforced in all its details. It’s just that there are often transitional arrangements. That’s normal in business.’

There is no doubt that since the start of the crisis, the EU has found itself in a particularly difficult position where it has tried to balance principles, economic interests and complex constraints. Yet, in opting for this latest compromise, Brussels has performed a U-turn with potentially high and diverse costs without securing a lasting resolution of the core issues in the post-Soviet region. Certainly many – the present authors included – have pointed out the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy so as to address a range of serious concerns. However, a last-minute decision announced three days before the Association Agreement’s ratification and taking many top EU officials by surprise hardly constitutes such a review. Allowing Russia to dictate EU-Ukraine relations does not indicate the application of a comprehensive, sustainable strategy. Whether it is born out of a pragmatic trade-off or a tactical retreat, it is a short-term fix based on a set of shaky assumptions. Its far-reaching implications, however, will still need to be confronted.

First, allowing Russia to participate in the EU’s negotiations on a bilateral agreement with another country sets a dangerous precedent. It is a blatant reversal of the EU’s earlier position. It opens a minefield for international lawyers. Even more importantly, it undermines the principle of dealing with Ukraine as an independent country: regardless of its ‘semantic framing’, the EU has accepted Russia’s right to determine the essential terms and the limits of its post-Soviet neighbours’ integration choices. The potential application of this precedent to other neighbours is obvious, but also has implications for relations further afield involving Turkey or China. Importantly, the EU likewise concedes to Russia’s double-standards in international relations: while Putin complains that nobody talked to Russia about the potential consequences of the DCFTA, he conveniently forgets that the Eurasian Customs Union was launched in 2010 with no consultation with the EU and no adequate transitional arrangements resulting in significant damage to EU businesses.

Second, it is not only the inclusion of a third party as such, but also the mode and the professed reasons for accommodating its preferences that are questionable. Russia’s justifications for its ‘trade concerns’, have been highly spurious and are, as Michael Emerson put it, ‘a non-story’. For example the problem of Russia being ‘swamped by EU goods’ can be addressed by the proper application of rules of origin. The EU has been involved in consultations with Russia on the subject for many months now making a strong case as to why the DCFTA need not disrupt existing trade arrangements. It is unclear how fifteen more months of discussions will help resolve a problem that in its essence is neither legal nor technical. Above all, Russia’s concern is a thinly veiled contestation as to who the rule-setter in the post-Soviet space is. Russia principally objects to the EU expanding its regulatory framework – via the Association Agreements – to Russia’s perceived exclusive backyard, the post-Soviet space. This is especially so given the clash of EU policy with the expansion of Russia’s own economic integration project. Faced with a complex bundle of economic and geopolitical concerns, the EU conceded to pressure rather than sound argument.

Third, EU statements on the deal refer to the peace process in Eastern Ukraine, implying that it amounts to a necessary sacrifice for the sake of ensuring a peaceful resolution between the separatists and the Ukrainian government. Its political acceptability is justified against the backdrop of a military conflict in which Russia has been a party. However, Moscow has adamantly refused to acknowledge its involvement, endeavouring to present the conflict as a local, bottom-up rebellion. Securing peace and saving human lives is an objective one certainly cannot disagree with; however, as it stands, the deal offers few guarantees and carries considerable costs. While Russia refuses to acknowledge its role in the conflict, the deal legitimises and validates Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ strategy: by instigating conflict, Russia is able to extract concessions from the EU for the sake of a ‘contribution to peace’.

Fourth, the EU’s actions rest on the assumption of a ‘fixed and stable agreement’, one that reflects and accommodates Russia’s preferences. It assumes that agreements and rules will be implemented. The source of this optimism – given Russia’s track record of behaviour – is unclear. Indeed, it has already been revealed that Russia is not satisfied by the mere delay of the Agreement’s implementation. Furthermore, the consensus on what constitutes ‘implementation’ might be overestimated given Putin’s reference to ‘any legislative implementing acts under the Association Agreement’. There is no reason to assume that Russia’s decision to trigger sanctions will be based more on law and shared understanding than in previous instances. The EU’s longing for ‘business as usual’ obscures the fact that this is the last thing it is and that Russia’s claims are derived not from legal agreements but from claims to a sphere of influence.

Fifth, while the need to ensure the compatibility of the DCFTA with interregional linkages is understandable, the EU has shown a sudden ready acceptance of post-Soviet integration structures. After many years during which the EU had raised valid concerns: for example, about the degree to which the Eurasian Customs Union acts as an economic rather than a Russia-steered, political entity with an unclear division of competences, or the degree to which it contributes to trade liberalisation and WTO commitments implementation. We, amongst others, have criticised the EU’s lack of strategic engagement with the Eurasian project, yet the show of caution has not been entirely unjustified.

If anything, Russia’s policies towards Ukraine amplify these concerns: the Kremlin has in effect (and with its partners’ consent), destroyed the Eurasian Customs Union by imposing unilateral trade measures on Ukraine. Recent statements of Commissioner Füle, however, reveal the EU ‘warming up’ to Eurasian structures, based on a presumed functional and rule-based equivalence of both regimes. While the Eurasian structures certainly contain promise, its actual delivery is circumscribed by a range of problems of institutional design and implementation.

The EU continues to state that regional economic integration frameworks need to contribute to trade liberalisation and WTO compliance. Yet, ironically, Russia’s threats to Ukraine – rather than the success of the Eurasian project itself – might end up earning it external recognition just as these very same threats undermine it internally. Furthermore, while the EU might be willing to enter into a comprehensive free trade area ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’, there is actually no certainty that free trade is what Russia wants and pursues.

On balance, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that by agreeing to this pragmatic, ‘principles-lite’ deal, the EU accepts and legitimises a particular way of conducting international relations favoured by Russia. Acquiescence to this pattern of behaviour comes at the very time when Moscow’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine amount to a shake-up of the international order. The EU’s pragmatism has not been lost on the people of Ukraine, with the prevailing interpretation on social media being one of ‘having been abandoned’. For an outgoing team of the European Commissioners to present this as ‘business as usual’ while leaving a series of ‘landmines’ for future interactions between the EU and Russia should be a source of deep concern. Yielding to Russian anxieties rather than comprehensively addressing existing questions, opens a raft of new issues. They need to be confronted rather than obfuscated behind the rhetoric of normality.

A shorter version of this commentary has been published in The Conversation

Debating the European Parliament is possible

On 6 June, in the municipal house of the city of The Hague, a roundtable debate took place, entitled ‘Towards a new parliament? The European Parliament after the 2014 elections‘. The invited speakers featured both prominent academics like Christophe Crombez (Stanford University/University of Leuven) and Claes de Vrees (Univeristy of Amsterdam), politicians like Wim van de Camp (a Member of the European Parliament from the Christian Democrats), and the expert Tom de Bruijn (former Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the EU and current member of the Dutch Council of State, also an external teaching Fellow at the Institute of Public Administration). The debate was organized by the Institute of Public Administration of Leiden University and the Standing Group of the European Union of the European Consortium for Political Science Research (ECPR) with the support of the European Commission Representation to the Netherlands, the Dutch Minisitry of Foreign Affairs and the Hague municipality which co-sponsored the debate. The roundtable took place in the large atrium of the municipality, while somewhere upstairs negotiations on the new city government were still under way.

Most of the public were academics – the debate was part of the 7th Pan-European Conference on the EU – but, quite amazingly, people from all walks of life showed up as well – from secondary school students to journalists to retired civil servants. If anything, the full hall and lively discussion showed that debating the future of Europe with a broader public is not only necessary, but also possible.

The moderator, Joop Hazenberg, asked a number of questions about the speakers’ assessment of the results of the European Parliament elections, their vision of the future priorities and the future President of the Commission. Then there were questions from the floor.

Two of the speakers – Crombez and de Vreese were more positive than many may have expected on the entry of populist parties in the European parliament, rightly observing that these parties represent views that also have their place and are healthy for the debate. Van de Camp suggested that low turnout in EP elections is the result of lack of education on the EU in secondary schools, a view which was challenged by a member of the audience who was a secondary school pupil.

De Vreese shared results from his public opinion work which suggest that even more liberal parts of the Dutch electorate are negative towards some member states citizens. This left the audience wondering what the current views and expectations of the Dutch public are with regard to the Internal market.

Van de Camp was quite optimistic about Dutch companies taking advantage of the final opening of the market for services, yet did not respond to questions on how this would affect the free movement of labour in the Netherlands. De Bruijn highlighted a common energy policy as an urgent priority for Europe. The questions touched on EMU, human rights and the EU, internal market and the selection of the new Commission president. On the latter, the members of the panel were divided: while Crombez felt that making Mr. Juncker the next Commission President would strengthen democracy in the EU, de Brujin pointed out that Mr Juncker was not even on the list of the European People’s Party candidates. With this, a lively debate was finished as one of the highlights of an even livelier conference. This format mixing politicians and academics and using a public venue seems to hold some promise for all involved: academics, politicians, experts and the public.The very exchange of views is creating a better awareness where democracy in the EU is weak and what we can do to change this.


The Dutch Prime Minister: ‘Europe is kind of important, because of …hmmm… jobs… hmm… trade… Canada’

Prime Minister Mark Rutte just could not bring himself to muster any real enthusiasm about the EU in his interview last night on Nieuwsuur. Ostensibly the purpose of the interview was to mobilise people to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections.  At least that’s what I think. Having listened to him, I am not sure what the purpose was. If I had to make up my mind whether to vote or not, based on his arguments, I would definitely stay home.

When asked at the start to say on a nutshel the most important reason why the EU is important for the Netherlands, he waffled on unenthusiastically about the EU helping to create jobs…well, if you organize things well of course and for example…a trade agreement with Canada that would help a lot… Incoherent, unconvincing and down the same perilous road of giving no value driven justification for the existence of the EU beyond trade. Then he said that sovereignity and legitimacy in Europe are vested not in the European Parliament, but in national parliaments. He went on in the same way to drop heavy hints that he also often found the EU too intrusive in domestic affairs.

This from the same Prime Minister who was reported to have strongly advocated the creation of a stronger European Commission competences on national budgets and automatic sanctions for member states that violate common budgetary rules.

So, I guess there is no democratic obligation for the Prime Minister to be pro-European. That’s fine, although I wish that he did not go on TV to make his lack of enthusiasm so painfully obvious just before the European Parliament elections. Also strange if you consider that employers and entrepreneurs have launched a campaign to support the EU, including TV ads and posters and cars everywhere. And the VVD, Rutte’s party, is supposed to be representing the entrepreneurs’ interests to a considerable extent. All of that might be just between him and his party’s support base. But I still cannot get over the hypocrysy of playing the Eurosceptic card at home and advocating all kinds of strengthened oversight measures in Brussels. What does he really believe in?

Can the CIS Survive the Ukraine Crisis?

A guest post by Rilka Dragneva

The death of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been foretold many times during its history of (now) more than 20 years. Dissatisfaction with its weak and confusing institutional structure and a failure to promote effective regional integration has become an almost permanent background to its existence. Despite the remarkable resilience of the CIS, there are several signs suggesting that the current crisis is more fundamental and extreme than previous shake-ups.

Firstly, the present crisis focuses on a founding member of the CIS, Ukraine. It is important to remember that the very CIS formula came into being at the secret Belovezhskaia Pushcha meeting between Presidents Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich of 8 December 1991 in order to accommodate Ukraine’s refusal to participate in a reformed Union,[i] and was very much ‘thrust upon’ the other former Soviet republics. Arguably, Ukraine was instrumental in shaping the design and ultimately the limits of the CIS in its gradual institutionalisation in the early 1990s. It did not sign the Charter of the CIS in January 1993 but took an active role in its drafting and, as President Kravchuk stated, considered itself a ‘member of the CIS, actively participating in its improvement’.[ii]

In March 2014 the Ukrainian authorities announced the termination of their presidency of the CIS and their intention to leave the organization altogether. Indeed, a bill on the denunciation of the CIS Founding Agreement was introduced into the Rada by MP Boris Tarasyuk. Georgia had withdrawn from the CIS previously, in August 2008. In legal terms, both countries’ membership was of a peculiar nature, as neither had fully met the conditions of the Charter requiring 1) participation in the founding agreements of December 1991 (fulfilled by Ukraine but not by Georgia), and 2) ‘assuming the obligations under the Charter’ within a year of its adoption (fulfilled by Georgia but not by Ukraine). Nonetheless, the importance of the withdrawal of a founding member of the organization could not be overstated in the CIS world of ‘casual legality’ but high political symbolism.

Secondly, Ukraine’s pending withdrawal rests on a charge that the CIS and its institutions have failed to address the Crimean crisis, that, in other words, rather than exercising its most basic function of promoting dialogue, the peaceful resolution of disputes and cooperation, the CIS has turned into Russia’s puppet. In the beginning of March 2014, the Ukraine had called for an extraordinary meeting of the CIS Foreign Ministers Council in Kiev to discuss the crisis. The request was denied by the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which instead approved an alternative proposal for a meeting of deputy Foreign Ministers in Minsk. This was deemed as unacceptable by Ukraine, which challenged the de jure as well as de facto ability of the CIS to function.

Indeed, it is clear that the multilateral structures of the CIS have been marginalised and that the response to the crisis has been driven by one-to-one dialogue at the highest level. When the Foreign Ministers Council met in Moscow on 4 April, it dealt with the vacant presidency of the CIS, but did not engage in any formal Ukraine-related effort. In fact, the principal decision-making bodies of the CIS, the Councils of Heads of State and Government, have not held a formal meeting since 25 October 2013 and 20 November 2013 respectively.

According to the Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman, Ukraine’s March request was supported only by Kishinev; in a recent interview she noted that the situation called for a ‘very thorough analysis and evaluation of what has happened within the CIS’. Other leaders were predictably more restrained. The Belarusian President Lukashenka recently described the situation as ‘not very simple’, but proceeded to reject a break-up of the organization despite half-heartedly acknowledging problems. Meanwhile, as argued by Farkhad Tolipov, Russia’s disregard of multilateralism was not lost on the Central Asian countries.

President Putin held a meeting with the Presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgzstan, Russia and Tajikistan on 8 May 2014 – all of them members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Rather than a formal gathering of the organization, this was a ‘talking down to’ at Russia’s invitation, and Kazakhstan’s absence is yet to be deciphered. Nonetheless, the meeting betrayed the concerns of even loyal supporters of the Russian position – like Armenian President Sargsyan – about the need for more coordination and multilateralism in responding to foreign policy crises.

Thirdly, the Ukraine crisis challenges the very premises of the post-Soviet settlement: the principles of national sovereignty, independent statehood, and territorial integrity embodied in the CIS founding agreements. As Tolipov notes, unlike the Crimean case, the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 did not lead to annexation by Russia. And while the fact of Crimea’s annexation has largely been accepted by the CIS member states, their reaction has not been as definite, unambiguous and resolute as Russia might have wanted. Certainly, for many of them – especially those with a sizeable Russian minority – the post-Soviet settlement is not a safe and secure option anymore.

Fourthly, Russia’s specific interest in the CIS is not easy to fathom. While Ukraine has certainly been very selective in its participation in the organisation,[iii] Russia has been discerning too: for example, it never ratified the 1994 and 1999 Free Trade Agreements concluded within the organisation. In March 2005, Putin stated that ‘the CIS never had any supertasks (sverkhzadach) of an economic nature, any integration tasks in the sphere of economics’. As Tolipov aptly points out, in his 18 March 2014 speech, Putin delegitimized the CIS even further: by arguing that Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union was illegal, he also challenged the very legality of the Commonwealth. Perhaps not incidentally, Putin’s latest address to the Federal Assembly, on 12 December 2013, mentioned the CIS only in relation to educational cooperation. Putin’s recent agenda has focused primarily on building a Eurasian (Economic) Union, implying the hollowing out of previously important organizations, such as EvrAzES. While some continuity will be provided within the Eurasian Economic Union, the future status of non-Customs Union members of EvrAzES remains unclear.

Yet, despite Russia’s fairly opaque position on the CIS, it has developed a key interest in the 2011 Free Trade agreement, and particularly in its perceived incompatibility with Ukraine’s signature of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. In a newly discovered concern for legality (and in contrast with previous casual attitudes to CIS agreements and, indeed, Putin’s above-mentioned statement on the organisation’s limited economic role), Ukraine was accused of violating Article 13 of the 2011 CIS FTA.

It is evident that despite Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurances of ‘not keeping anyone in the CIS by force’, Ukraine’s possible exit from the organization needs to be viewed in the context of the ‘carrot and stick’ policy employed in securing Putin’s geopolitical vision. Given the ‘variable geometry’ principle in signing agreements in the CIS, a withdrawal from the 8 December 1991 Agreement would not automatically imply an exit from other arrangements. Indeed, the stated intention of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is to analyse individual agreements and determine ‘the feasibility of Ukraine’s further participation’ in them. Yet, this decision might require a more complex cost/benefit calculation. As Viktor Medvedchuk, a well-known protagonist of Russia’s interests in the country noted: ‘Ukraine’s withdrawal …will lead to a sharp decline in investments in the Ukrainian economy from CIS countries, primarily Russia. Ukraine’s withdrawal from the organization will also mean leaving the CIS free trade zone’. Thus, Ukraine’s approach of selective withdrawal from its CIS commitments might not work without advances in the geopolitical, EU-Russia stalemate resulting from the current crisis.

What does all this mean for the CIS? Is a regional crisis of this depth and magnitude likely to doom it as an organisation? This author’s bets – at this stage in the developments surrounding the Ukrainian conflict – are on its survival. Firstly, the resilience of the CIS is embedded in its extremely loose institutional framework and the ability of its members to define their membership as they see fit. In fact, in comparative terms, the CIS is the ultimate institutional chameleon. Secondly, in the two decades of post-Soviet regional integration, Russia has proved that it rarely ‘keeps all its eggs in one basket’. It has invested in a range of regional organizations, and despite the current salience of the Eurasian Economic Union, there is no reason to assume that other vehicles will not be assigned appropriate uses. Currently, the CIS is also the only Russia-centred grouping incorporating countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Thirdly, the long-term tendency of region-level post-Soviet institutional development has been one of strong continuity. Organisations are frequently and incrementally reformed or renamed, but rarely completely reinvented, as aptly demonstrated by the evolution of the Eurasian Customs Union’s institutional regime.[iv] Thus, it is unlikely that the CIS will disappear without a fundamental and deep reform of the underlying political, economic and socio-legal orders within the majority of its member states. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that recent events will significantly deepen the crisis of purpose and credibility the CIS had been experiencing beforehand.

This analysis has been first published here in the blog of the Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies of the University of Birmingham, on 12 May 2014

[i] E Walker, Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Break-Up of the Soviet Union (Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2003)

[ii] Diplomaticheskii Vestnik, 3-4 (1993): 42

[iii] R. Dragneva and A. Dimitrova, ‘Patterns of Integration and Regime Compatibility: Ukraine between the CIS and the EU’, in K. Malfliet, L. Verpoest & E. Vinokurov, eds., The CIS, the EU and Russia: Challenges of Integration (Palgrave/Macmillan), 171-201

[iv] R.Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, ‘Commitment, asymmetry and flexibility: making sense of Eurasian economic integration’, in R. Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, eds., Eurasian Economic Integration: Law, Policy and Politics (Edward Elgar 2013), 204-221