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EU Association Agreements can become engines of change, even if they do not lead to membership

An interview with Barbara Lippert, Director of Research in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska.

July 6, 2016 - Barbara Lippert - Interviews

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AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA: In light of the numerous crises currently faced by the European Union, what is the future of EU Enlargement Policy?

BARBARA LIPPERT: The EU enlargement is an almost forgotten topic. We know that there is an unfinished mission in Western Balkan countries and that, for them, one of the positive indirect effects of the refugee crisis is that more attention has been focused on what is happening in the region. These countries are still eager to accede to the European Union, but they have lost a lot of momentum over the last few years. Turkey has always been a special case. Whilst within the “Turkey deal” some references have been made to the re-opening of negotiations, this is still a very slow process and I think that there is no credible perspective or interest in the accession on either side. The EU has worked out a new consensus when it comes to enlargement policy and one of the main themes has been the consolidation of political commitment of the EU, which was restricted to the Western Balkans, Turkey and the European Free Trade Area countries. For the moment, there is no move towards extending these political perspectives to, for example, Ukraine or Moldova. I think it is now more about consolidation and coming to grips with the union of 28, or maybe even less, not enlarging it. I personally don’t think that the future of the European Union will involve systematic differentiation with internal concentric circles around a core group and different circles with different levels of integration and cooperation. I do not see that as something that would be attractive to third countries. One could of course argue that it is easier at least to get to the periphery, but countries like Ukraine or even the Western Balkans, do not only need economic integration. They want to have access to policy making and political integration. It could happen at the end that we will have a looser EU and a periphery whose relations with the core would vary in terms of intensity. This would imply having different types of association. And I think that the road towards Brussels would involve less obstacles and problems.

Do you think that countries like Ukraine, who are aspiring to be a part of the EU, have simply a different understanding of what the EU is and what it means to be a EU member?

I think this is a general phenomenon that many of the candidate countries have a limited understanding of what it means to be a member. One of the key issues has always been the requirement to delegate some parts of sovereignty. In other words, it is not that you are a member of the EU as a nation state without transferring some of your sovereign rights to this new political system. Membership comes with rights but also with some obligations, and this usually proves to be problematic. There are enormous expectations connected with the EU mostly in relation to economic and security benefits; the idea that the country is now a part of a community that will protect it. This has been overstated in many cases and people are a bit frustrated with the realities of being members of the EU. So when we talk about the political aspirations of Ukraine, of those who are pro-European, they want to become a part of this functioning union composed of democracies, where the rule of law is guaranteed and there is a feeling of belonging to a prosperous world. Stability and prosperity – this is what is expected from the EU. The problem is that a country has to fulfil a lot of conditions and that the EU does not want to have sub-standard members where the rule of law is not fully applied. And if you do not have stability and prosperity to start with, the increase in prosperity from the moment you enter the EU takes a long time.

This can be observed in many “new” EU member states. They are better off, there is more investment in the economy etc., but there is still a gap between them and many of the old member states. I think one should be very realistic. Ukraine is definitely a special case because we have Russia, who pursues a policy against the association, antagonising the whole pro-European approach of Ukraine and the EU will surely take this into account. This is quite a new scenario that it is seen as an unfriendly act to become a member of the EU by such an important neighbour as Russia. But also within the Ukrainian society the potential EU membership is a controversial issue, although the country is interested in having trade and economic cooperation with the union, does it really want to become a part of it? I think it is important that there is a debate within Ukraine and other countries about these basic issues. There are other ways to maintain intensive links with third countries short of membership. This is how Brussels’ perspective has been framed. It has not been very successful in the past but it is an alternative to membership from the point of view of the EU. But I know this example: you do not want to drive a Volkswagen when a Mercedes is just around the corner; so everyone would prefer a full membership and not have any other substitutes in between.

The possible easing of travel rules for Georgia and Ukraine brings us closer to which scenario? That of greater integration with the Eastern partnership countries or is it just a kind of consolation prize?

It is both. I would always advise to see it in a positive and pragmatic way. First of all, I think it is a building block towards an economic integration which also has political and social aspects. The association has both an economic and political dimension and such cooperation can intensify gradually over the years. But what is most important is that with the visa-free arrangement you can really indicate that something is happening on the ground that will improve life for individuals, for the society and for the economy. So it is necessary that things improve not only on paper but in empirical and very practical terms. The association agreements, for example, with Ukraine and Georgia are very ambitious frameworks, and it is crucial to implement as many reforms as possible so that even if the countries do not accede in the end they will have benefited from the whole process. And that is something that must be proactively communicated. This is a question of framing of the debate: concentrate on real problems and areas in which you can have real achievements. These will involve of course smaller to-do packages, but nevertheless they can become the engine and the glue in approaching western standards in the sense of a better functioning state, a rules-based system, the rule of law, checks and balances, and increased foreign investment. I realise: Now with the geopolitical confrontation in the Donbas region it is all enormously complicated. But I do not think the visa-free agreement should be just a substitute for accession. My advice to policy makers in the associated countries would be: make the most of it.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, recently remarked that there is a possibility for the relaxation of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis if the country makes progress in implementing the Minsk agreements. Do you think that this may be a sign of a shift coming with regards to Germany’s relationship with Russia?

I don’t want to speculate about it, but I think that there still is an agreement that we will relax the sanctions once there is a better implementation of Minsk accords. To my knowledge we have not reached the point when we have had enough of an improvement to allow us to relax the sanctions. As far as eastern Ukraine and Crimea are concerned – nothing has changed. So these sanctions should remain in place. One could of course interpret Mr Steinmeier’s and others statement as a way of encouraging better implementation and saying that we do not want to keep these sanctions forever, that we acknowledge any improvement, and that we monitor the situation closely; and, in case of Minsk progress, we can come back to more cooperation. In my opinion, we have not yet reached this point, but it is obviously difficult to give momentum to the process again and not live with this kind of stagnation which is now prevailing. But today I would not interpret it as a policy shift. I think the signal Germany has sent to the whole EU is important, because it is not only the German business community that deals with Russia; securing commercial interests is important for the whole EU. Italy, for example, frequently questions the necessity of the sanctions. I think it would be good if Germany continued to keep a close watch on what is happening, but also retained a very critical stance vis-à-vis Russia. I remember that when diplomatic talks around Syria started, many thought that the EU would now have this agreement and give up on the sanctions to have a cooperative Russia sitting at the negotiation table. As we have seen, this has not been the case. This kind of interlinkage of different agendas is of course quite a temptation and challenge, as we know that there are issues where we need Russia to play a more constructive and cooperative role. And this is what diplomacy is all about.

How does the general public in Germany view the conflict in Ukraine? It seems to me that Europe has gradually lost interest in what is happening behind its eastern border.

I share your view that what is happening in Ukraine is not so much in the fore and is not discussed much outside of the interested elite and political circles. The wider public is reminded from time to time when something severe is happening in the Donbas region or when the Normandy format is meeting, but there has been a decrease in attention given to the conflict. The focus is now of course on the Mediterranean, the North African region and the refugee crisis, and this is to the detriment of Ukraine and the east in general. But a prudent foreign policy does not look at the polls and public opinion to shape its approach. It does have to communicate with the public now and again to explain that the conflict is also important for our own security, for our way of life, and that we have stakes in it. It is important that the government and politicians make this clear. Germany plays an important role in the conflict negotiations because of the Normandy format but the EU as a whole has not been collectively involved apart from the sanctions regime and, of course, the bilateral relations with Ukraine. Federica Mogherini, for example, is not talking much about Ukraine. I think it is important to put Ukraine and the region back on the agenda, but what is even more important is to work on the existing problems: go to Ukraine, but also to Russia and explain what people from the EU think about the conflict. The media sphere, particularly in Russia, is very controlled and there is little access to pluralistic sources of information on issues related to the war in Ukraine.

Barbara Lippert is Director of Research in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) since 2009 and has been Deputy Director of the Institute for European Politics (IEP) from 1992 until 2009. She finished her doctorate in 1997 at the University of Bonn and studied political sciences, modern history, Eastern European history and Slavic philology in Bonn and at the Free University of Berlin. Her areas of expertise are: EU enlargement policyEuropean Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the political system of the European Unionprinciples of European integration.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe.

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