Europe’s Three Eastern Questions

by Javier Solana 

Published: Project Syndicate, 07 June 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the European project is shaking. Of course, I am confident that the eurozone’s ongoing sovereign-debt crisis will be overcome, and that a more integrated and effective Europe will emerge. But, to get to that improved Europe, not only must the sovereign debt crisis be resolved; relations with three major countries to Europe’s east – Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine – will need to be put on more secure footing.

I was of the generation in my country that lived through the transition from dictatorship to democracy four decades ago. For us, the European Union was a dream. Indeed, we used to quote Ortega y Gasset: “If Spain is the problem, Europe is the solution.”

I continue to believe, very deeply, that Europe is the solution, particularly for societies that need to deepen – if not establish – a democratic tradition. Closer relations between Europe and Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine can deliver for them many of the same benefits that we in Spain always associated with Europe.

Turkey is, of course, already a candidate for EU membership, but accession negotiations are moving very slowly, which is strategically unwise, because Turkey’s great authority in the wider Middle East is vitally important to Europe (and probably greater than its own). From Syria to all of the Arab Spring countries, Turkey’s influence is highly significant, and further cooperation with the EU can only prove beneficial.

The EU has created a channel of communication with Turkey on political matters. But it has not resolved the relationship’s endgame. My passionate hope is that Turkey becomes an EU member, because a country that is Muslim, democratic, and overwhelmingly young could strengthen the Union in vital ways.

The debate around Turkish membership is set to become hotter in the second half of this year, when Cyprus assumes the EU’s rotating presidency. Turkey, to be blunt, will not recognize today’s divided Cyprus as the sole representative of that island. Further complicating matters is the discovery of oil close to the Cypriot coast. Anyone planning to drill there will become embroiled in a major maritime dispute, with Cyprus claiming that the reserves lie within its territorial waters, and Turkey countering that Cyprus has no territorial waters, because Cyprus, at least for the Turks, does not exist.

Russia has become a different type of complicating factor for Europe. Vladimir Putin, who has now returned to the presidency, may be the same person as before, but Russia has changed. The recent wave of protests in Moscow and throughout the country has exposed the limits of his power. I believe that Putin understands this, which is an important fact for future diplomacy. 

In the next few days, the formation of Russia’s new government will reveal much about power relations between conservatives and liberals. Notably, billions of dollars of public property are at stake, owing to a privatization plan designed by former President Dimitri Medvedev.

Here, the EU has a framework – the Partnership for Modernization, negotiated with Medvedev – that could potentially be very positive. Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2011 should also help to ensure that it plays by international rules, as occurred with China when it joined the WTO. Russia’s adherence to the WTO’s legal framework should begin to make economic relations with it much more stable and predictable.

Previously, Russia’s admission to the WTO had been blocked by Georgia, which lifted its veto last year after a feat of elegant diplomacy that established a border-control mechanism without recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia either as part of Georgia or as independent countries. That solution, while complicated, is a good outcome for the region.

Given the scale of Ukraine’s current problems and dysfunction, an elegant solution may neither be available nor sufficient. Ukraine, with which I have been engaged since its independence, has been a great frustration to me. I was involved in the negotiations that helped to bring about a peaceful resolution of the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. But subsequent infighting between the revolution’s leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, was so destructive that Viktor Yanukovych, whose efforts to manipulate the 2004 presidential election incited the revolution, is now President and Tymoshenko is in jail.

For the EU, Ukraine continues to be a serious problem. A comprehensive free-trade and association agreement with the Union remains unsigned, owing to the incarceration of Tymoshenko and others. Fortunately, given the Union’s attraction for most ordinary Ukrainians, there is still hope that simple realism will persuade Yanukovych and Ukraine’s ruling elite to return to a path that would allow for the association agreement to be signed.

Europe’s soft power has changed many things in many countries over the past two decades, spurring leaders and citizens to reform their economies and embrace or strengthen democratic values and institutions. It can continue to do so in Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine, or, through inattention and inaction, Europe could lose credibility, influence, and economic opportunities. 

Project Syndicate, 2012 

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