And never the twain shall meet?

The Ukraine crisis is causing many to ask if the EU's Neighbourhood Policy has been addressing the right issues in the east. In this commentary, Gabriele Schöler and Stefani Weiss, senior project managers at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, argue that the EU should revisit how it approaches its eastern neighbors.

Things are churning – dangerously so – on the EU's border. If you take a look at the Ukraine crisis and Europe's helplessness in dealing with it, it becomes apparent that something must have gone fundamentally wrong since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. We in the EU have been able to achieve peace, democracy, stability and prosperity for the Union's member states, if only for them. Given our history, that is certainly not nothing. Yet since we cannot simply expand the EU's borders as much as we might otherwise want to, we need to engage with the world around us in its often anything but peaceable state. That's something we should know by now – at the latest after the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, during which more than 100,000 people fell victim to violence perpetrated along ethnic and religious lines.

But hasn't it always been this way? When things are going well, don't people tend to become blithe and inattentive, and even indulge in hubris? And things have been going well for the EU for quite some time. This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Union's eastern enlargement. In 2004, a number of nations acceded to the EU, including the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, along with the former Eastern bloc nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In 2007, Bulgaria and Romania, on the Black Sea, joined as well. With that, the EU's border shifted far to the east, without a single shot being fired.

After that, unfortunately, the EU failed to make the countries that became its new neighbors in the east an offer that was truly attractive. If anything, its specially developed Neighbourhood Policy kept those countries, including Ukraine, at arm's length. The policy's focus on promoting political reform and strengthening civil society in neighboring nations sounds good to us, yet it intentionally ignored the economic and social tensions present in Ukraine, tensions that divide Ukrainian society, since addressing them would have cost the EU money – lots of money. At the same time, it must be said that the free-trade and association agreement with Ukraine, which we like to see as increasing freedom and democracy there, would first and foremost be a boon to the EU's exporters.   

It was, moreover, an even greater mistake to ignore the historical, cultural and geo-strategic realities present in the countries on the EU's eastern border, just as it was a mistake to exclude Russia and not treat it as a partner of equal standing. That hardly justifies Putin's annexation of Crimea in violation of international law. It should, however, serve as a reminder that the EU’s policies are not so values-based and altruistic as we'd like to think. The key reason the EU is having problems implementing a consistent policy toward its eastern neighbors is the diverging interests of its individual member states – not only security-policy interests, but also their very concrete economic interests, which are largely at odds with each other. Yet the EU needs a consistent policy, one that, above all, takes into account the interests of the individual countries involved, thus acknowledging their validity. It is, after all, possible to negotiate interests – less so morals and values, especially when a constant emphasis is placed on how different they are. That is why we firmly believe the EU should refocus its Neighbourhood Policy.

Gabriele Schöler and Stefani Weiss are senior project managers at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, in its Europe's Future program and its Brussels Office, respectively. This is their contribution to the analyses, commentaries and background articles being published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung prior to the European elections. Links to other articles in the series can be found on the right.