Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz is a political scientist, author of numerous works on relations between the EU and Eastern Europe, a member of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Issues, and the head of the Brussels Office of the Centre for Eastern Studies.
"European politicians are now in unexpected accord: after the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, the EU's strategy towards its neighbours must change. More than ever before, the EU needs to appeal to liberal values, to promote democracy and to support social movements.
The guiding principle should be 'more for more': progress in implementing democratic solutions will entail a greater involvement for the (both financial and economic) in its cooperation with its individual neighbours.
In the European Commission's communiqué of 11 March, it unambiguously stated that "a commitment to adequately monitored, free and fair elections should be the entry qualification" for participation in the Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity, that being the EU's new initiative addressed to its Southern neighbours.
Such an approach seems perfectly reasonable and desirable. However, it brings with it a serious danger: when confronted with reality, it may prove impossible to put these noble statements into practice.
This is because there are no simple rules or easy prescriptions in the policy of democratisation. Contrary to what is being said today, the departures from this policy which occurred in previous years were not always the result of cynicism or errors. Often they were attempts to solve dilemmas which did not have unambiguously positive solutions. There is no reason to believe that any 'new' EU policy of democratisation will be free of such dilemmas.
Dilemma #1: The EU's interests and the policy of democratisation
Despite the ousting/toppling of the long-standing dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, most of the countries bordering the EU are still authoritarian states, which regularly commit electoral fraud, violate human rights, and have bloody repressions of opposition protests on their conscience. A principled EU policy to promote democracy would mean freezing or severely cooling relations with more than half of the countries in the neighbourhood.
In addition, it is these same authoritarian neighbours which are the most important current and potential suppliers of raw energy materials to the EU: Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan and Russia. Tense relationships with these countries would greatly complicate attempts to guarantee energy supplies –of key importance from the EU's standpoint – and would reduce the chances of obtaining those raw materials at favourable prices.
This is all the more important as competition on the oil and gas market is becoming increasingly fierce, and other players (such as China or even Turkey) do not have any scruples regarding the nature of the regimes they have to deal with.
Functional relations with the EU's authoritarian neighbours are also necessary for other reasons. It is those very same governments who are partners in talks on reducing migration and the fight against terrorism. Both of the aforementioned issues are so important for the EU that it has no choice but to accept the need to talk to those people who are actually on the other side of the table, and not only those whom it would prefer to be talking to.
Dilemma #2. The isolation of regimes and openness to the society
Nevertheless, even if we leave aside the 'realities on the ground' and assume that the EU could take a fundamental position against undemocratic regimes, there is no guarantee that such a policy would prove successful.
On the contrary: the case of Belarus, which has been the object of the EU's most principled pro-democracy (or rather anti-authoritarian) policy in the entire neighbourhood (it has less access to markets, the President and his entourage are covered by a travel ban to the EU) shows that pressure from Brussels has had little impact on that regime's commitment to liberal values.
The lack of contact with the government has instead limited the EU's opportunities for opening up to the citizens of Belarus, which is now the only country in Eastern Europe which has not signed any agreement on visa liberalisation.
Starting the negotiations has been made more difficult by the fact that the very officials who are subject to the visa ban would be on the other side of the table. As a result, Belarusians must pay a restrictive price of €60 for access to the Schengen zone, almost double what their Russian and Ukrainian neighbours have to pay.
Dilemma #3. What should be done about democracies which are slipping backwards?
Four years ago, the EU welcomed the anti-authoritarian revolutions in the East: the 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia and the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine. Today these countries are showing increasingly disturbing signs of violating democratic principles.
However, the reactions from Brussels have gone no further than rebukes and political declarations. The EU is determined to sign an agreement on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with Ukraine, even though this does not correspond much with the principle of 'more for more'.
But the EU's room for manoeuvre here is very small: limiting the offer, and therefore offering 'less', would mean the failure of the most ambitious integration project in the region. This would not only call into question whether the negotiation of such agreements with other partners had any purpose at all, but would above all distance Ukraine from the EU, in both the economic and political senses.
Nor can a similar scenario be ruled out in Tunisia or Egypt. Even if free and fair elections are held in these places, it seems almost certain that the new governments will not be free from temptation to return to the authoritarian practices their predecessors employed.
In this case, should the EU reduce its offer, in accordance with the principle of 'more for more'? Or should it rather adopt the strategies now being employed in Ukraine?
Dilemma #4. Are all democratic elections acceptable?
Theoretically, the EU should be ready to accept any government which has been chosen by fair and pluralist elections. In practice, however, democratic elections in the EU's neighbourhood have at least twice led to forces taking power which are completely unacceptable from the standpoint of the liberal values which the EU promotes (the government with the participation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the entry of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority).
In one of these cases, the EU withdrew a significant part of its aid, and thus risked the charge of taking a selective approach to the democratic legitimacy which the Palestinian people had given their representatives.
Dilemma #5. Support for weak states and the principle of conditionality
The EU faces a challenge not only from authoritarian states, but from 'a deficit of state' in general, meaning countries (or regions) where the institutions are so weak that they are unable to perform their core functions. In such cases, support from outside is mainly addressed to humanitarian aid, as well as building up basic administrative structures.
The size of the funding is thus very loosely linked to the principle of conditionality. The EU's policy towards the Palestinian Authority is one such example of this: in per capita terms, it is the largest beneficiary of EU aid in the neighbourhood (in the period 2011-2013 it is set to receive up to €45 per capita of EU aid; for comparison Tunisia, which is the most democratically promising country, will receive around €8 per capita). It cannot be ruled out that Libya will be the next recipient of this type of support.
Citing these dilemmas is not intended as a discouragement to democratisation; on the contrary, democratisation is an important and necessary element of the EU's policy towards its neighbours. However, this policy should be accompanied by a realistic message: the EU has the right to defend, and must defend, its own immediate interests, and this often conflicts with the long-term aim of democratisation.
Nor is it possible to apply the principle of conditionality completely consistently and without exception. By making its message more pragmatic today, the EU will increase the chances that its 'renewed' policy for promoting democracy will succeed.
First and foremost, it will avoid encouraging unrealistic expectations in the neighbouring countries. At the same time, it is likely to prevent future accusations that the pro-democratic actions it takes are selective and inconsistent."