EU Should Seek Further Reforms Before Offering Membership to Eastern Neighbours

Agmashenebeli Avenue in Tbilisi is turned into 'European Street' in March to celebrate visa-free travel in the Schengen area for Georgians. Photo: Getty Images.
Agmashenebeli Avenue in Tbilisi is turned into 'European Street' in March to celebrate visa-free travel in the Schengen area for Georgians. Photo: Getty Images.

As the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit begins, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are likely to demand more serious commitments and a clear path to EU membership. The challenge for the EU will be to resist these calls while sustaining painful but necessary reforms in those countries.

The increased security challenges that a resurgent Russia pose to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine provide ruling elites in those countries with stronger political leverage to demand more serious commitments from the EU, and boosts their image at home. Focusing on Russia also deflects attention away from domestic problems, and offers excuses for not implementing reforms that have already been adopted under EU Association Agreements.

Certainly, Russia’s strong propaganda in these countries, financial backing of corrupt elites, annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and destabilization of eastern Ukraine provide arguments for increased EU support. For the EU, however, offering an explicit path to membership for these states also means a more strained relationship with a Russia that defines these states as belonging to its sphere of influence.

Incomplete reform

Some governments are rolling back on previous commitments or are not ready to undertake crucial institutional reforms. Moldova’s long-awaited judicial reform has come to a halt. In a rare show of discontent with the pace of reform, the EU has refused to transfer the last tranche of €33 million intended to support the transformation of the Moldovan judicial system. The October protests in Ukraine reflect citizens’ disappointment with the lack of reforms, such as the cancellation of parliamentary immunity and the establishment of an anti-corruption court. Georgia, with a constitutional majority in parliament, has postponed its electoral reform from a mixed system to a fully proportional one to 2024; this gives time for incumbents to use the current electoral system at least one more time in their favour. Such reforms threaten vested interests that are keen on preserving an incomplete state of change which allows for old habits and practices to prevail.

A deeper transformation process is crucial for these countries to take on systemic corruption, create an opening for genuine political elite renewal, and as a result, move closer to practicing the EU’s core values of good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights. European states should actively engage governments but not indulge corrupt elites and vested interests that are hijacking the European agenda in these states. Enhanced oversight and strong conditionality need to replace a complacent EU discourse towards non-compliant governments.

By promising membership, the EU would only undermine the impetus for a genuine transformation process by endorsing corrupt politicians. This would only increase the EU’s already serious image problems in the region and undermine citizens’ trust in European values. It should instead be clear that no path to membership – the EU’s most powerful, but also last remaining, carrot – is on offer until domestic reforms are not only adopted but also fully implemented.

Cristina Gherasimov, Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme (2017).

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