The EU needs to better marshal its soft power in the eastern neighbourhood.

This piece was first published in the Wall Street Journal Europe on 14 July 2009. 

Crisis in Eastern Europe has disrupted the last three holiday seasons. War in Georgia in August 2008 caught most European diplomats on the beaches. The gas crisis in Ukraine came during a very cold New Year. And the Moldovan parliament burned during Easter. The EU should be gearing up for another eventful summer.

New elections are due in Moldova on July 29, after the deadlocked parliament twice failed to elect a new president. Another gas row between Ukraine and Russia could erupt in July or August, as Gazprom struggles for revenue to boost its plummeting cash-flow and Ukraine struggles to pay.

Amid this flurry of activity, the EU is taking its ability to influence events in Eastern Europe for granted. That's a mistake. The EU expansions in 2004 and 2007 have actually managed to push the farther Eastern region further away. On a practical level, for instance, visas are now needed to travel from the region to new EU members like Poland or Hungary.

EU expansion has also created less tangible problems for the EU. People in corrupt and divided Ukraine, which sees the offer of EU membership recede over the horizon, ask how their country is so different from corrupt and divided Romania, which has been welcomed into the EU fold. Recent polls in Ukraine, the "linchpin" state in the region, show 42% of the population in favor of integration with Russia, as opposed to 34% with the EU. The local states are weak and are either unable or unwilling to adopt the EU's massive rule-book, which is necessary even to be considered for EU membership. Only in tiny Moldova is opinion solidly in favor of the EU.

The picture is not all bad. The practical benefits of the common market are pulling new member states closer to the West economically. As for the nonmembers in the region, five of the six -- Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan -- now trade more with the EU than they do with Russia; Belarus, the sixth, is the exception. But the EU is failing to transform its economic role into political influence. Russia marshals its resources more carefully, and has learned the power of incentives. It has offered neighborhood states concrete benefits, such as open labor markets, cheap energy and hard cash (loans and trade concessions) during the present economic crisis. As the war in Georgia showed, Russia also uses hard power -- not just with military force, but also with economic coercion. Russia has now had trade conflicts with all its neighbors, each one coinciding with a political row.

The EU isn't keeping pace with Russia in this regard. It doesn't really do hard power. Its occasional use of smart sanctions -- travel bans and asset freezes against the leadership of Belarus over faked elections and the rebel "Transnistrian Republic" in Moldova -- have not borne much fruit. Its soft power is also too often ineffective, particularly on the people-to-people level. Its restrictive visa policy means that the fragile middle class of the eastern neighborhood is excluded from the European mainstream. Education exchanges are minimal, and the EU has no real mass media presence in Eastern European markets that are increasingly monopolized by Russian media and increasingly centralized local governments.

The inability of the EU to transform the region, and the tendency of weak states to play Russia against the West, make the problems so frequent. The crises are not only serious, but multiple and reinforcing. Some result from weak statehood, such as lack of territorial control and state capture by corrupt special interests. Some stem from Russia's attempts to build a sphere of influence (Russia seeks to control the gas energy infrastructure and maintains a military presence in all six states). These problems were exacerbated by the economic crisis, which hit the region particularly hard.

The EU's policy toward the region should not be based on the remote prospect of accession, nor on "enlargement-lite" policies that are effectively trying to export the EU's rulebook and promote EU interests without offering accession or substantial financial assistance in exchange. Instead, the EU should develop country-specific solidarity strategies to deal with underlying weaknesses, such as building on the March 2009 agreement with Ukraine to upgrade its gas pipeline system. Visa regimes for citizens of the neighborhood countries urgently need to be liberalized to boost the EU's waning soft power and promote travel for bona fide citizens of the neighborhood countries back and forth from the EU, rather than the current de facto reality of permanent illegal migration.

The EU also needs to start putting Eastern Europe back on the diplomatic map. The "Eastern Partnership" launched in May is a good start. It aims to re-energize EU policy in the East by offering the region a new set of association agreements, discussion on visa-facilitation, and regular summits. But it started in exactly the wrong way, when Angela Merkel was the only leader from the big EU states to attend the Prague summit. What is needed is an "EU listening tour" of the region, in which leaders from EU states start taking into account the political and security concerns of the region and incorporate them in the emerging discussion between the U.S., Russia, and the EU on the new European security architecture. These discussions currently exclude the neighborhood countries.

While the region is beset by short-term crises, the EU's policies are too long-term. As the U.S. is discovering with its Mexican and Caribbean backyards, problems of poverty, corruption and weak statehood do not stop at the border. The EU is understandably preoccupied with its own internal problems, but these will only get worse if the EU is surrounded by a collapsing neighborhood.

Messrs. Wilson and Popescu are policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations where they co-authored the recent report: "The Limits of Enlargement-lite: European and Russian Power in the Troubled Neighbourhood."



Read more on: Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.