The six East European and South Caucasian countries of the EU’s so-called Eastern Partnership program all belong, in one way or another, to Europe. Nevertheless, none of them have so far been officially offered the prospect of entering the EU once they and the EU would be ready for accession. Indeed, two of the Eastern Partners of the EU, Belarus and Azerbaidjan, are currently too far away from EU standards to discuss such entrance. However, the four remaining countries – Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine – could already today be given an explicit promise to start accession negotiations once they meet the EU’s fundamental conditions for membership. Brussels should not any longer wait with opening this prospect. The history of the EU’s engagement with Central and East European countries illustrates why this is the case.
The Specific Challenge of the Post-Totalitarian Multiple Transition
Nowadays, some may no longer remember how unclear the future of the Soviet bloc successor states, with the exception of East Germany, were at the beginning of the 1990s. Not only lay observers, but also seasoned political analysts were, after the downfall of the Iron Curtain, skeptical about the prospects of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Some prominent democratization experts argued that the establishment of the rule of law, liberal societies, and political pluralism in the post-communist world would be long and tedious. The former satellites of the USSR were seen as being haunted by a "simultaneity dilemma."
This meant that the post-communist countries had not only to democratize, a task difficult enough by itself as illustrated by the spectacular failure of Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic, in 1933, but also thoroughly liberalize their hitherto planned economies, create civil societies after decades of totalitarian rule, and build sustainable nation-states out of partial or full colonies of the USSR. In addition, they had to do all this simultaneously and within a short period of time. The complexity of this task led some to advance an “impossibility theorem” concerning the chances of a swift transition to democracy in the post-communist area.
The challenges confronting most liberal reformers, in earlier transitions, had usually been more circumscribed. Often, these tasks were limited to one or two spheres of society, at a time such as the move towards a democratic republic away from an imperial polity, in the case of Germany after World War I and II. The formation of competitive market economies, consolidated and law-based nation-states, rooted civil societies, balanced constitutional orders, structured multi-party systems, and eventually, pluralistic political orders happened in the West over the course of several decades, if not centuries.
By contrast, in Eastern Europe after 1989, all of these transitions – economic, social, cultural and political – had to happen quickly and concurrently. Each had to be successful. The argument in the early 1990s was that to accomplish so many tasks quickly and in parallel would be complicated. The message was that, in view of the “simultaneity dilemma” and the even more pessimistic “impossibility theorem,” we should prepare ourselves to wait a long time for fully and stable democratic regimes to emerge in post-Soviet Europe.
The Surprising Success of the East-Central European Democratizations
This was, immediately after the break-up of the Soviet bloc, a sensible prediction by comparativists: the tasks in front of the post-communist reformers looked daunting when seen against the background of those facing earlier democratizers. Nevertheless, by the early 21st century, the majority of East-Central European countries had successfully reinvented themselves as consolidated democracies and functioning market economies. Surprisingly, it took these countries only about 15 years to establish more or less competitive business landscapes, stable liberal democracies, integrated national communities, and adequate state bureaucracies.
Moreover, the developments of some, like Estonia or Poland, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, have by now become applauded stories of exceptional transformative success. These new member states are today cherished assets to the crisis-ridden European Union. Oddly enough, since the start of the current financial crisis, some older EU components like Greece or Spain, and even to some degree, founding states of the ECSC and EEC like Italy and France, have become major headaches for Brussels, rather than the new post-communist countries. The “simultaneity dilemma” has turned out to be far less serious for some former Soviet bloc members than feared by political scientists, after the Cold War had come to an end.
One intervening factor that, in the second half of the 1990s, reconfigured the context of the East-Central European transformations was the EU’s bold membership offer to a number of post-communist countries. Brussels’ public promise, in the mid-1990s, that these states would gain candidate status and eventually full entry into the Union once they met the so-called Copenhagen Criteria helped to reshape their political discourses, to smoothen their social conflicts, and to strengthen pro-democratic actors. The EU laid out clear and convincing conditions that would have to be met to start accession negotiations. Brussels gave detailed prescriptions of when and how these countries had to establish a law-based democracy and create a competitive market economy. The signal was that you could become a member of the EU if you were willing and able to adapt your legislation, practices and policies accordingly and swiftly.
The Impact of the EU Membership Perspective on East-Central Europe
The aim of accession to the EU introduced a powerful rallying point and commonly accepted yardstick for the otherwise divided pro-European political, economic, civic and intellectual elites. It assisted them in overcoming the typically agonizing socio-political confrontations that many post-Soviet states are still suffering from today. It helped the Westernizers to undermine the isolationist discourse of the paleocommunists, new nationalists, self-serving rent-seekers, and other anti-reform actors.
Moreover, Brussels' promise was an important signal to various multi-national cooperations, dozens of investment banks, and hundreds of West European small and medium size businesses. Companies from both the old EU member states and outside the integration area started to engage more deeply with the future accession countries once they understood that the question was merely when rather than whether the post-communist countries will become part of the EU's common economic and legal space. Finally, the EU membership perspective facilitated Brussels' closer cooperation with a number of other international organizations pursuing similar aims in East-Central Europe, such as the OSCE, Council of Europe or International Monetary Fund.
Ultimately, the EU’s future accession offer and its various domestic and international repercussions as well as the subsequent candidate status, entry negotiations and enforcement mechanisms provided an important push towards democratic consolidation, administrative reform, inter-ethnic peace, and socio-economic modernization. They constituted consequential new circumstances in these countries’ transition processes that had not yet been considered by skeptical political scientists, in the early 1990s. Apart from other beneficial factors underestimated in earlier prognoses, the EU membership prospect was a major counter-force neutralizing the “simultaneity dilemma,” and invalidating the “impossibility theorem.”
Certainly, political scientists and economists still disagree about the exact degree and even the kind of impact that the EU accession perspective and negotiations eventually had in these countries. For instance, the Union’s entry offer has been much less effective with regard to some successor states of Yugoslavia as well as in the case of Albania. It is not even clear whether the various outcomes that the accession process created in the acceding countries were in all and every regard positive. For example, the government-centered interactions between the EU and its candidates partly hindered the post-communist countries’ reconstitution of their traditionally top-down state-society relations.
However, there are few observers today who would question, in principle, the notable and beneficial influence that Brussels’ initial offer and subsequent pressure had during the pre-accession period on countries such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, or Romania. Equally, it is already today possible to claim that a similar story is emerging for Croatia. Perhaps one day even a more or less comparable narrative may be told for the unlikely case of post-Milosevic Serbia. Who would have predicted some 15 years ago that Serbia would today be an official EU candidate negotiating full membership in the Union?
The EU’s timely and credible offer of possible future membership resulted in a win-win outcome for both sides. On the one hand, it provided the East European nations, and today the Western Balkan, a clear path towards their longed for “return to Europe.” On the other hand, it met West European security interests by way of stabilizing and incorporating the former countries of the outer Soviet empire as well as the three Baltic republics of the USSR’s inner empire. Today, it provides a guideline for the gradual transformation of the remaining successor states of Yugoslavia and Albania. The historically fast transformation and integration of East-Central Europe has been the most remarkable episode in the course of EU enlargement, if not in general, the most successful democracy promotion campaign in history. It has played a crucial role in overcoming the post-communist “simultaneity dilemma” and devaluing the “impossibility theorem.”
The stark contrast in the transition success between those former Soviet bloc countries that were given a membership perspective, and those which were not, illustrates the point. Until today, the post-communist transformations behind the EU’s new Eastern borders are being subverted by the “simultaneity dilemma,” as predicted by political science in the early 1990s. There is a widening gap between the political, social and economic successes in East-Central Europe and the Baltics, on one side, and various stagnation and regression processes in the remaining post-Soviet countries, on the other.
All this indicates that Brussels’ policies towards the post-communist space may be playing a larger role than the EU thinks or even wishes. In spite of some worrying detours in the political developments of such new EU members as Romania and Hungary, the overall results of the EU’s inclusive policies with regard to the East-Central European countries have been positive and sustainable.
Indeed, the individual stories of the EU entry negotiations, procedures and outcomes are more complicated than outlined here. The current socio-economic situation across the accession area from Estonia to Bulgaria remains uneven. As mentioned, in the Western Balkans, the EU membership perspective has so far been an only partially effective instrument. Yet, overall, making an official, but conditional offer to start accession negotiations once a country is meeting the Copenhagen Criteria (democracy, rule of law and economic competitiveness) has turned out to be a useful strategy, at least for the East-Central European countries of the former outer Soviet empire and three Baltic USSR successor states. The same approach should, therefore, today be applied to the more advanced official Eastern partners of the EU.
Continuing the EU’s Success Story Further East
The actual entry into the EU is for all of the Eastern Partnership countries probably still far away. For years to come, an accession offer would thus have only few consequences for the EU’s internal matters, and distract the Union officials only marginally from their more urgent immediate tasks. At the same time, Brussels would have to make sure that an explicit offer of possible future EU accession would not be propagandistically exploited by anti-democratic politicians. An official EU membership perspective would have to be formulated in a way as to avoid any suggestion that Brussels is awarding authoritarian rule. But these are questions about how rather than about whether. It would be odd for the EU to miss this historic opportunity just because it would take some effort to properly present the possibility and criteria of a future accession and what they imply for current authoritarian trends.
Brussels could today easily provide a conditional membership perspective for some Eastern Partnership countries without locking itself into an irreversible accession automatism. For example, Ankara was given a future entry offer as far back as 1963, and Turkey has now had official EU candidate status for several years. Yet it is still not clear when, or if at all,, the relatively advanced Turkish economy will become fully part of the EU. Turkey may even choose by itself to not enter the Union, if it decides that the cultural distance and geostrategic incongruence with Europe are too strong.
Against the background of the Turkish case, it seems illogical that Brussels still avoids giving any clear positive public signals to its official Eastern partners. Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union applies to the Eastern Partnership countries, and they thus have a European perspective. This article states that “any European state which respects the principles [of the EU] may apply to become a member of the Union.” Repeatedly, the European Parliament and the European Commission have, since the start of the Eastern Partnership in 2009, admitted that this de facto implies a membership perspective, for the EU’s Eastern partners.
However, there still is no explicitly announced prospect for a possible future accession for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia – neither in the texts of the Association Agreements, which Brussels currently negotiates with them, nor in the European or Foreign Affairs Council’s statements over the past few years. Thus, Brussels has been unable to fully employ the stick-and-carrot approach that so effectively supported the transformation of the post-communist states in the 1990s.
With its continued rejection to provide an unambiguous and credible membership perspective, Brussels not only acts in contradiction to the immediate needs of the Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians and Armenians, but also places the EU in dissonance with the broader interests of its own population. It is conducting a real life experiment in which the hitherto unknown “light conditionality” mechanism of the association process is supposed to fulfill a function similar to the hard conditions set out in earlier accession negotiations in East-Central Europe. By doing so, Brussels has entered a risky game that could tarnish the reputation of the Union’s foreign and security policies as well as democracy support efforts. It is missing an easy opportunity to initialize and consolidate democratic trends and political stabilization in the Eastern Partnership countries.
Arguably, the EU already bears some responsibility for the fact that these countries are still deadlocked in unsustainable socio-economic and hybrid political orders. By denying them a long-term, conditional, but official entry option, Brussels deprives the pro-European elites in these countries with the most important argument for adopting the European model. The Eastern Partnership countries are instead left to swing between authoritarian and democratic practices, and they are prone to future revolutionary upheavals, like those in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. The prospect of such instability in the post-Soviet area contradicts the interests of all the peoples of Europe. In the interests of everybody, Brussels should, at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit in November this year, end its inaction and finally take another bold step towards completing the European project.
Andreas Umland is a DAAD Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy," a member of the Valdai Discussion Club and German-Ukrainian Forum, as well as general editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.