Is the EU losing its eastern neighbourhood?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The parliamentary elections in Ukraine on 28 October seem to illustrate that the EU is loosing its grip on its most important partner in the region, write Guillaume Van der Loo and Peter Van Elsuwege.

Guillaume Van der Loo is a doctorale candidate at the European Institute of Ghent University researching EU-Ukraine relations. Peter Van Elsuwege is a professor EU Law at Ghent University.

Recent parliamentary elections in Belarus and Georgia do not predict much good for the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbours. This, combined with Russia’s increasingly aggressive integration policy towards this region, challenges the future of the EU’s Eastern Partnership.

The nearly complete results of the parliamentary elections in Ukraine show that Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions wins with 35% of the votes, while the United Opposition of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko got 22%, followed by the Communist Party and the UDAR (the party of the former boxing champion Vitaly Klitchko)  – both around 13%. This means that the Party of the Regions will lead a majority in the parliament, cementing the leadership of Yanukovych and paving the way for his re-election as president in 2015.

The biggest blow for EU-Ukraine relations is not the result of the elections but the many irregularities and evidences of election fraud reported by the international election observers. The joint preliminary report of the OSCE/ODIHR stated that the elections “were characterised by the lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and lack of balanced media coverage” and that the elections constituted “a step backwards compared with recent national elections”.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle were more diplomatic in a joint statement, speaking of a “mixed picture” and declaring that “the final assessment will also depend on the post-electoral developments”. They avoided linking the electoral fraud with the negotiated EU-Ukraine Association Agreement despite the fact that fair and democratic elections were put forward by the EU as a conditio sine qua non for its signing and ratification. However, most probably these elections will further delay the signature of this Association Agreement.

The deterioration of EU-Ukraine relations proves that the key objective of the Eastern Partnership – i.e. political association and economic integration with the eastern neighbours by concluding bilateral Association Agreements including ambitious Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area’s (DCFTA’s) – is far from being realised. The EU is not only losing its grip on Ukraine, the most important geopolitical and economic partner in the region, its relations with several other eastern neighbours are also in limbo.

In Georgia, the party of the pro-EU President Mikheil Saakashvili lost on 1 October the parliamentary elections from an opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was confirmed last week as the new prime minister. Opponents of Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, fear that he will bring the country back into Moscow’s orbit. How this will further evolve is difficult to predict. In any case, this first year of Ivanishvili’s government will be crucial as he and his political opponent, President Saakashvili, will have to work together until October 2013 when Saakashvili’s term expires and a constitutional reform will transfer many of the president's powers to the prime minister.

In Belarus, the situation remains dramatic. The parliamentary elections of 23 September are seen as ‘a farce’ as President Lukashenko’s political opponents were jailed and the two main opposition parties tried to boycott the elections by calling on voters “to go fishing” instead. The EU Council Conclusions on Belarus of 15 October reveal that the EU is unable to formulate a clear and consistent policy towards its troubling neighbour as the Council can only “reiterate its commitment to the policy of critical engagement, including through dialogue and participation in the Eastern Partnership”.

In addition to these domestic events, the relations between the EU and its eastern neighbours are increasingly challenged by Russia’s regional integration initiatives in the EU-Russia shared neighbourhood. The most successful initiative so far has been the creation of the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC) customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is one of Putin’s top priorities to use this customs union as a platform for further regional integration in the post-Soviet space, leading to a full-fledged economic union with common rules and institutions.

The success of this strategy stands or falls with the participation of Ukraine. Since Yanukovych became president in 2010, Russia has been trying to entice Ukraine to join the customs union with cheap gas prices and other trade benefits. Such a move would be incompatible with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the DCFTA.

Several EU member states and members of European Parliament may lose their patience  with Ukraine as they see the country is going backwards under the Yanukovych regime, dashing the high expectations that were created after the Orange Revolution in 2004.

The EU is now facing the difficult balancing act between pursuing its own interests and the promotion of its values of democracy and the rule of law. However, signing the Association Agreement seems to be the only option if the EU doesn’t want to blow up all its bridges with Ukraine.