In a sign that everyone’s begun to realise that we’ve already hit the limit of economically-viable countries (if there is such a thing in the current climate) to join the EU, and following the lead of Sarkozy with his Mediterranean Union, it looks like Brussels is finally taking a more realistic attitude towards the old Soviet sphere.
Because, let’s face it, Armenia, Azerbaijan, (especially) Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have very little of benefit to offer the EU in economic terms bar their strategic importance for the transportation energy supplies. They need to be kept sweet, certainly – but it seems that lessons have finally been learned: if you make promises you have no intention of honouring, resentment will build (cf. the growing euroscepticism of Turkey, repeatedly rebuffed since the carrot of membership was first dangled). Worst case scenario, you may end up having to make good with the promises and hand membership to countries – like Romania and Bulgaria – that simply aren’t ready for it.
This newly revamped Eastern Partnership is an overdue heir to the old Phare scheme, which did so much to prepare the 2004 Central and Eastern European accession countries for membership. If done right, it could bolster goodwill towards the EU among these near neighbours. It may, if we’re lucky, help bolster their flagging economies and strengthen their nascent democracies (or even help make democracy more likely in the dictatorship of Belarus). If done badly, it will breed only resentment – not just among the countries themselves (annoyed at being denied the chance for full membership), nor even in Russia (irritated at her old sphere of influence being infiltrated once again), but also among current EU member states (thanks to fears of a sudden influx of migrants from these regions).
It’s hard not to think that Bulgaria and Romania got rather lucky. They’ve only been in the club for a couple of years, and arguably fail to live up to a number of the Copenhagen criteria for membership. If this apparent new tendency to look to “partnership” arrangements as an alternative to full membership had been devised back when Romania and Bulgaria were first being considered as applicants, a lot of fuss could have been saved.
We’re also, perhaps, beginning to see signs of future EU ambition. The EU’s already expanded its partnerships beyond the scope of Roman Empire. These new models of relationships – the Union for the Mediterranean and the Eastern Partnership – could yet spread further: to Central Asia, further south in Africa, perhaps to South America via the EU enclave of French Guyana, possibly even to the Middle East and South East Asia.
For those who dream of a future of global free trade agreements, these moves – with their suggestions of trade partnerships and opening up of markets – are surely a promising sign that the EU is beginning to head in the right direction? Such partnerships could never have been negotiated (arguably imposed) by just one nation acting alone – but the collective bargaining power that the EU’s vast market has brought has given the organisation a genuinely powerful ability to broker such deals that should, in the long term, benefit everybody concerned.
I’ve never bought in to the idea that the ultimate goal of the EU is that mythical superstate. Instead, if you believe that global free(ish) trade is desirable – and if you’re going to go really utopian and over the top – it’s surely aiming for something along the lines of Star Trek’s Federation? Why, after all, aim for a common market on just one continent? If a common market is a good thing, surely it should be expanded globally?
Overly ambitious? Probably. But this sort of partnership agreement formed (or forced through?) by a pre-existing coalition is certainly a rather more realistic route to such an end goal than individual nations all bickering among themselves. If you want to see just how effective that sort of system can be, just have a gander at the increasingly ineffective United Nations or its League of Nations predecessor.