The European Neighbourhood Policy is becoming more "political", experts have told EURACTIV, citing the growing role of Catherine Ashton's External Action Service (EEAS) in Europe’s fragmented eastern neighbourhood.
The European Commission's regular progress reports covering all sixteen ENP countries [see background], published last week, revealed more competition among its members, according to foreign policy experts contacted by EURACTIV.
"The publication of these reports is another opportunity for sending political messages to neighbouring countries", said Dr Michal Natorski, the senior ENP research fellow at the College of Europe.
Such papers were published "in the context of [a] competitive approach favoured more and more by the EU authorities", he added.
Last week's reports downgraded Ukraine, citing issues such as incomplete judicial independence and limited press freedom. Georgia and Moldova, on the other hand, were praised for democratic changes and free elections.
The Commission noted that "Eastern countries are on increasingly different paths," referring to a growing divide between the 12 countries.
Georgia and Moldova have enjoyed relatively successful democratic reform while Ukraine’s association process has been frozen in recent months due to concerns over the independence of its judiciary system.
Other countries like Azerbaijan are not seeking association with the EU while Belarus largely remains a dictatorship.
EEAS takes charge of neighbourhood policy
Several experts told EURACTIV that the EEAS's growing influence on the ENP was increasingly politicising it.
The EEAS is a diplomatic corps that was introduced with the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. Headed by Catherine Ashton, it has the objective of developing a genuinely European foreign policy.
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“What you are seeing is the EEAS playing a greater role in the ENP. This is bringing foreign policy priorities to the foreground," Rem Korteweg, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, told EURACTIV.
Prior to the EEAS’s creation, DG Relex in the Commission dealt with the EU’s neighbourhood policy from a non-political and technical perspective. The shift to the EEAS could be seen as one explanation for a stronger political emphasis in recent ENP reports.
The ENP underwent major changes in 2010-2011 due to the creation of the EEAS, which was more focused more on promoting of deep and sustainable democratic practices, accompanied by inclusive economic development.
Last week’s reports reflect a European agenda for good governance and democratic reform in its neighbourhood, Korteweg said. They are therefore inherently politicised as the agenda reflects European values and interests. Pro-European governments in the region will thus tend to be perceived more positively than others, he argued.
Ukraine’s ‘last signal’?
By its size and potential, Ukraine is the most important country in the Eastern dimension of ENP and has been seen as a locomotive for the others. However, this perception appears to be changing.
“Ukraine still has a long way to go," said Korteweg, "specifically in the field of 'selective justice’, corruption and dealing with conflicts of interest. Also the implementation of the new criminal code, reviewing sentences under the previous code, adequate (re)training of the judiciary, and changing Ukraine’s legal culture will take time” .
“The high-profile criminal cases of Tymoshenko and Lysenko have not helped Ukraine’s position,” he added.
Natorski was even more outspoken.
“This report is probably the very last signal that Ukraine has to do something with the cases of "selective justice" and improve regulations concerning democratic institutions,” he said.
According to Natorski, two particular elements exemplify the “disappointment” from Ukraine: the October parliamentary elections, which reflected the deteriorating quality of the Ukraine's democratic institutions, and cases of “selected justice” such as that of Yulia Tymoschenko.
Georgia: Inflated winner?
Experts also voiced concerns about Georgia’s inflated progress report last week, citing structural division in Georgian society, which could reignite tensions and undemocratic tendencies.
Georgia acted on most of the key recommendations included in the reports, including broadly free and fair parliamentary elections and strengthening freedom of expression throughout 2012.
But Natorski said there were “serious concerns" with Georgia's political priorities for democratisation,
“There is a permanent political conflict between two competing ruling elites using different more or less legitimate instruments. For example, we see the abuse of judiciary power aimed at eliminating political competitors,” he said.
The report also indicated a continued commitment on Georgia’s behalf to engage with its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while actively participating in the Geneva discussions and regulatory approximation to the EU acquis.
“The progress report contributes in a beneficial way to Georgia’s membership aspirations, however it does not mean that Georgia is out of the woods. Corruption remains a major issue of concern, including outstanding issues of judicial reform, press freedom and labour rights and of course the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” said Korteweg.
Division and competition
As part of the new ENP strategy, the EEAS now flags the "more for more" principle, which focuses on stronger partnerships with those neighbours that make more progress.
The new financial instrument for the neighbourhood over the 2014-2020 period will incorporate this principle of conditionality in the area of financial cooperation towards democratic reform.
EEAS communications also indicate a stronger emphasis on ‘naming and shaming’ methods.
“There is no doubt that the publication of these reports and in particular their interpretation has political nature” said Dr. Natorski.
“However, this approach can be very risky since it is based on the assumption that EU-orientation of neighbouring countries is self-evident,” he added.