CAN THE EU ACT AS A GEOPOLITICAL POWER?

By Hannes Swoboda

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Invited by the EU Commission to attend the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership between the EU and six countries in its Eastern Neighborhood (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), I could see all the strengths and weaknesses of the EU. The EU invited all these countries ten years ago to come closer to the EU in a negotiated framework. The EU did not promise future membership. The idea was to make these countries accept political principles and economic rules in exchange for economic benefits. The Eastern partners were supposed to liberalize their political systems, accepting and promoting fundamental rights and freedoms. The EU insisted also on the liberalization of trade and on the mutual opening of markets. Financial support in exchange for reform processes would be the contribution of the EU. 

    

 Is the Eastern Partnership a success?

It is difficult to decide whether the Eastern Partnership project has been a success or not. In a publication distributed at the meeting in Brussels - a special edition of "New Eastern Europe" - James Nixey expresses the following opinion: "If the EU is honest, there is little reason for it to celebrate on this 10th anniversary of its magnificent envisioned Eastern Partnership. (…) In choosing between values and interests, the EU often chooses unwisely. As such fear of the Russian response has entered into the EU calculus." Iris Kempe defines one of the main issues clearly: "The overall goal for Europe's relations with Russia is to manage risk with a neighbor that is both a security threat and a potential partner."

In the debates between high ranking politicians of the partnership countries, the EU and its member countries, and representatives of the civil society the question was raised: has the Eastern Partnership been successful?. Well, we have to admit that ten years is not a long period – historically - but certainly, many expectations have not been met so far. The strongest instruments, such as the Association Agreements in combination with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements have had limited effect. In some countries, especially Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the EU could not develop and use all its instruments to strengthen the ties with them. 

Concerning Belarus and Armenia, the EU has to respect the special and delicate relations of these countries with Russia. On the other hand, it is a success that in spite of strong Russian influence and pressure, the relations with the EU could be extended and enhanced. This is even more surprising in the case of Moldova, where also the separate region of Transnistria can participate in the Free Trade Area arrangement. 

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Values and Geopolitics

Ukraine and several of the EU member countries, especially Poland, are interested in using the Eastern Partnership as an organization and instrument against Russia. In the debate in Brussels, the Polish foreign minister asked for a stronger organizational structure of the partnership. He suggested a common political line against Russia, while he had to recognize that individual sensitivities have to be taken into account. He did not explain how this could be done in the framework of an anti-Russia strategy. For the present Polish government, the Eastern Partnership should be a geopolitical instrument. But they would have to accept that there is no unanimous position both in the Partnership countries and in the EU on this matter.

There were also differences between the views of the High Representative, Federica Mogherini and the Lithuanian foreign minister. Mogherini said that the Eastern Partnership is no geopolitical instrument. She meant that it is not an instrument against Russia. The Lithuanian foreign minister, whom I have known very well for many years, contradicted Mogherini and underlined the geopolitical character of the EaP. According to him, the EaP is an instrument against what he calls “the Russian aggression towards its neighbors”. 

However, the Swedish foreign minister, who represented the other EU member state that promoted the Eastern Partnership ten years ago, underlined the necessity to promote fundamental rights in the partnership countries. For her, the promotion of liberal values has the highest priority. She asked, in particular, for a clear and strong strategy for reaching equal rights for women and men. It was a position shared by the representatives of the civil society in the partnership countries. They asked, in fact, for legislation against domestic violence in Belarus, where such legislation is still non-existant.  

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We can see that, within the EU, there are different aims and targets as well as different approaches. One is geopolitical, neglecting the differences inside the EU, while the other is underlining the transformative power - again neglecting the newly arisen differences inside the EU. The idea of promoting the transformation towards a liberal political and economic system is still the official policy of the EU in many respects. The Eastern Partnership is only one example.    

Today, the promotion of liberal values and economic systems is confronted with a Russia that is not inclined to accept such a transformation. It does not reject such transformation only for itself, but Russia is critical towards the adoption of such a strategy in its neighborhood. One consequence is the aggressive policy towards some countries in the EU neighborhood, as Tim Marshall notices:" The annexation of the Crimea showed how Russia is prepared for military action to defend what it sees as its interests in what it calls its "near abroad". It took a rational gamble that any outside powers would not intervene, and Crimea was 'doable'."   

The EU as soft and transformative power could not act clearly against a traditional geopolitical power like Russia. Besides the internal differences within the EU, not all the partnership countries could agree on a strategy towards Russia. An anti-Russia policy would even push some of them away from a strong relationship with the EU. Another failure in the Eastern Partnership and Neighborhood strategy is lack of solutions of the existing conflicts. Russia, which could contribute to solving these conflicts has no interest. Of course, Armenia and Azerbaijan could solve their bilateral conflict alone. But even here there was no readiness to come to a compromise - at least until now.   

We have ahead of us a conflict between two different approaches. On the one hand, we have the soft and post-national policies of the EU, which try to perform a peaceful transformation in its neighborhood and lead countries into the liberal capitalist world. On the other hand, we find an orthodox nationalistic power politics of Russia that is trying to keep its neighborhood dependent on the centre - Moscow. At least in the short term, the authoritarian and military supported policies seem to prevail over the "naive" value-oriented policies. But the hard Russian approach has also its limits, as we can see in the interests of the Eastern Partnership countries to have stronger ties with the EU irrespective of Russian influences.

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The New Geopolitics of Eurasia 

A few days after the conference in Brussels, the IIP together with other institutes organized round tables and a public discussion on "Contested Sovereignties, Contested Global Orders? Understanding the New Geopolitics of Eurasia". One of the starting points of the discussions was the famous quotation by one of the founders of geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder: "Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland, Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island, Who rules the World Island commands the World." For Mackinder geography - in its wider sense - determines politics. 

We can also use the general definition of Tim Marshall: "Broadly speaking, geopolitics looks at the ways in which international affairs can be understood through geographical factors; not just the physical landscape - the natural barriers of mountains or connections of river networks, for example - but also climate, demographics, cultural regions and access to natural resources." 

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But things are much more complex nowadays. As was noted at the event in Vienna - there are two main factors which influence and even determine politics and political developments: contemporary international society is being shaped by both forces of globalization and geopolitics. They have different logics and are driven by different forces, but do not exist in a zero-sum relationship. Globalization does not only comprise economic relations but new technologies, new forms and channels of information, global liberal values, etc.    

As underlined by one of the participants, Russia has been much less affected by different forms of globalization. It has followed different paths of development and tries to establish itself as a global power. Its authoritarian form of government and some of its geopolitical ideologues are supporting President Putin in his endeavors. The Ukraine crisis can, therefore, be seen - not simply as an outcome of the shifting balance of power - but as the product of a more deep-seated clash between the twin pressures of globalization and geopolitics that are reshaping Europe's security order in the twenty-first century.

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And the people?

The different affection by globalization in its wider sense limits the possibility to implement the transformative power and aims of the European Union, especially in the EU's neighborhood or the "near abroad' as it is called in Russia. But this limitation depends also on the attitude of the different groups of population in these countries. Rightfully, one can differentiate between 'high geopolitics' (elite theories, codes and policies) and 'low geopolitics' (the world as envisioned by ordinary people and shaped by both elite discourse, popular cultural expressions and media images)”.

We still have to define who is belonging to the elite and who to the lower classes. This is not so easy, especially when we think about NGOs, for example. This was clear at the meeting in Brussels where the NGO spokespersons of the Eastern Partnership countries were officially representing the people, but raising issues such as civil liberties and domestic violence, they were discussing special concerns for the "elite". 

This division should not only be referred to the partnership countries. There are different attitudes in the EU when it comes to elites and lower strata of different countries. Here the "people" have an influence on political decisions. In addition to this, Russia is targeting different groups with their information/propaganda. In this sense, one of the problems is the imbalance of information distribution. Russia is much more controlling of information flows in the country which gives the state more possibilities to influence its citizens than in the EU countries. Th elatter do not have that possibility and do not engage as much in spreading fake news. 

One may say, that the existence of different opinions, some of them supporting the Russian cause, is a weakness of the European Union. But limiting the information coming from Russian media - like it is done in Ukraine - is certainly not a useful policy and cannot be introduced in a democratic system. We have to accept some sacrifices and defend civil liberties.

    

Soft policies and defense

An issue that was raised in the evening discussion, which closed our Geopolitics event, was the possibility to overcome the EU's weakness by strengthening the military dimension. It could be done either by enhancing the links between NATO and the EU or by building up a strong military capability of the EU. The question of neutrality was also brought into the debate - especially for the countries of the Eastern Partnership. 

Could a concept of neutrality for these countries be the basis for a new understanding between the EU (and the US) and Russia? But what about the right of these countries to choose their own path towards security? How could NATO, which is interested in expansion, cope with the neutrality - in some cases against the majority will of at least the elite - of these countries? What kind of security guarantees could be given to these countries, which have one big neighbor, which is in violation of international law in relation to some of its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova)? It would be very helpful if all these issues could be discussed in a rational and forward-looking way. 

For the moment there is, unfortunately, no willingness on either side to start and promote such a serious debate. The danger is rather a new armaments race instead of strengthening security. That could endanger peace in Europe and destroy the limited successes of the Eastern Partnership. Of course, one should not be naive and forget to be prepared for any aggression against European countries. But Europe needs a comprehensive defense policy and structure. It needs not to build up a military capacity as such. EU countries should not bow to the pressure of the US. 

Europe should first have a clear defensive military doctrine before entering any discussion of a military dimension of the European Union. As we see with the US, they have a strong military capacity and that invites to use it in different wars. We must recognize that the US lost all these wars in the last years – from Vietnam to Iraq. Not a good example for Europe to follow.

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