Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz represents in Brussels the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Polish think-tank based in Warsaw.
This commentary was sent exclusively to EurActiv.
"The North African revolutions have changed the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which has now been underway for almost a year, from a marginal and bureaucratic process into a stormy debate which is now of top priority for the EU.
What was lacking in previous months has finally appeared – the interest and political will to make a real revision of the existing strategy. At the same time, however, the discussion on the EU's neighbourhood has almost entirely lost its Eastern dimension.
This fragmentary perception of the EU's surroundings seems very short-sighted. The crisis in the south should become a spur to reflection on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) as well. Moreover, it is also a chance to look at the EU’s policy towards Russia in a new way.
Stability in the east also needs attention
The EU has unambiguously learned that destabilisation in its immediate vicinity can have a huge impact on the prosperity and security of member countries. However, little attention has been paid to the fact that, in the face of the crisis in the EU's southern neighbourhood, stability in the east is becoming increasingly important.
This is especially apparent in the energy sector. In view of the threat to supplies of fossil fuels from Libya and possibly the Middle East, the importance of deliveries from Russia, as well as from the Caspian countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, is rising.
In recent years, this option for obtaining raw materials has become less important in the EU's energy policy, but now we may expect a partial reversal of this trend. This, however, means that answers must be found to these basic questions which are still relevant: which infrastructure solutions for importing energy resources from the region are top priorities for the EU? How can we tie the region's producers into the EU market? Finding answers to these questions and putting them into practice will require much more involvement from the EU than it has shown in recent years.
Getting involved in prevention
Events in the South have shown that autocracies are not nearly as stable as they look, and building democracy on the ruins of a failing regime is a very difficult, risky and costly challenge. The lesson it teaches us regarding the Eastern policy is obvious: it is worth strengthening fragile democracies, and avoiding the perpetuation of authoritarian trends there.
In other words: it is better to prevent the emergence of autocracies wherever possible, rather than having to deal thereafter with the results of anti-authoritarian upheavals.
There are as many as three 'unstable' democracies in the EU's neighbourhood – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. In the case of these countries, such preventive measures would for example mean greater involvement in cooperation with those countries' societies (by opening intra-EU programmes, granting more scholarships, and so on), and assistance in constructing institutions which are crucial for the functioning of democracy.
Primarily, however, it is necessary to make an offer which would be attractive enough to motivate the neighbour states to cooperate with the EU. In the case of Eastern European countries, two things would constitute a real incentive: visa-free movement and the prospect of opening up EU markets in sectors which are attractive to Eastern economies, namely agriculture and services.
Being prepared for crises
The first reactions from Brussels and the member states to developments in Africa confirmed surprising regularity: the EU is critical of authoritarian regimes, but when grassroots opposition to those regimes arises, then in the best-case scenario, Brussels stands helplessly off to one side, and often even begins to defend the status quo in the name of stability.
Such a policy seems particularly counter-productive in the case of the Eastern neighbours. In the past decade, grassroots protests and revolutions have proved to be the most 'democratising' instrument in the region, and in three cases they led to a weakening in authoritarian trends (2003 in Georgia, 2004 in Ukraine and 2009 in Moldova).
Moreover, unlike the recent 'revolutions' in the South, in each of these conflicts neither party reached for their guns, and none of the crises led to a humanitarian disaster or mass migrations. The EU must therefore take into account the possibility that revolutions and destabilisation may be part of the democratising process which it promotes.
With the African revolutions (and as was also the case with the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine) the EU was unable to formulate a clear political message and provide additional financial assistance to those countries whose autocratic governments were overthrown by protests and then stood on the threshold of transformation. This situation compromised the EU and should not be allowed to happen again.
It is time to draw a line on cooperating with regimes
Last but not least, the revolutions in North Africa have forced the EU to consider its cooperation with authoritarian regimes – a fundamental question regarding the EaP and the EU's relations with Russia – in a more honest light.
The policy to date – of sticking to high-minded principles, while accepting practices which contradict them – has proved particularly harmful for the EU, and has de facto led to far-reaching intimacy with its authoritarian neighbours. It is precisely this intimacy – much more than reasonable cooperation resulting from economic or security interests – which has primarily contributed to discrediting the EU, leaving it limited room for manoeuvre during the African revolutions.
The fact that links between the EU's political class and the local regimes have become too close, and that EU taxpayers' money has been used to support these regimes' institutions, and that cooperation at the level of society has been carried out mainly via non-governmental organisations and trade unions which are fronts for those governments, has been brought to light and duly condemned.
It would be worthwhile for the EU to summon the courage to make such a critical review of its policy towards its Eastern neighbours as well. Perhaps at this moment it would be a good idea to ask questions about the relations between some European leaders and their Russian partners, as well as about the principles of providing assistance to authoritarian governments and NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus."
To read Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz's op-ed in full, please click here.