14 February

Challenges (and Challengers) facing the EU: Part 1

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Internal East/West tensions within the EU would be easier to address in time, if the EU was not facing external pressures, particularly ones which can capitalise on internal division specifically. This can happen one of (at least) two ways – active strategy by Russia and the potential lure of alternative organisations, such as the Eurasian Union/Eurasian Economic Union or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The aim of this brief post is to consider what the consequences of leaving such tensions unaddressed could be for the EU. That such tensions exist will be a focus of UEF’s research and advocacy output, but for the purposes of this post, let us pose the question of what the outcome could be if such divides do exist in the EU and they remain unaddressed. As this discussion paper developed, it became clear that it was not possible to properly address all relevant issues in depth. As a result, this will serve to highlight some points of interest, which will later be developed into larger articles or studies, authored by in house contributors or contributing experts.

The Eurasian Union

Some background is in order. The Eurasian Union is an old idea, by some accounts drawn as a concept largely from the works of 20th century political writer Aleksandr Dugin (Umland, 2015). In any event, the Euriasian Union as a concrete political proposal stems at least in part from a 1994 speech by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Nazarbayev, 1994), although it was given impetus by Russian leaders more recently (2011/12) (EurActiv, 2012). Fast forward to 2015, the now Eurasian Economic Union is now an EUesque entity of 5 member states (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, The Kyrgyz Republic and Armenia), with free movement of goods, capital, services and people and common policies in certain economic areas, again a la EU. A common currency is also being planned (TASS, 2014). Enlargement of the EEU is a focus. So far, the list of potential future members includes Georgia (TASS, 2014) (although this is fraught with political difficulties due to strained relations between Moscow and Tbilisi), Mongolia (The Astana Times, 2016), Syria (RT, 2015); Ukraine had also obtained observer status prior to ousting of President Yanukovych (Makhovsky and Auyezov, 2013), but has since signed an Association Agreement with the EU (BBC, 2014).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

The other entity of interest is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It is described as a ‘regional international organisation’ (de Haas and van der Putten, 2007) which promotes cooperation in the’ political, military, economic, energy and cultural fields’ (de Haas and van der Putten, 2007). Although it has been described as a loose network with ‘conventional, verging on the platitudinous’ aims (Akaner, 2010), the SCO’s sheer size and development merit closer examination. For instance, its member states (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) have a combined population equal to a quarter of the world total (1.5 billion), while this rises to almost half of the world’s population if the observer states are also included (Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan and India) (Akaner, 2010).

Rising Tide

To be precise, the SCO is not a direct analogue to the EU, at least not yet, because its efforts are traditionally mostly confined to the security/anti-terrorist realm; however, since the early 2000s there have been moves towards greater economic cooperation within the SCO, including large scale infrastructure projects and a suggested free trade zone (Aris, 2013). It is relevant to this discussion that all full members of the SCO bar China are also members of the Eurasian Union. These apparent nascent overlaps and forays by the SCO into supranational unionism have not gone unnoticed by EU candidate countries. For example, as a result of poor recent relations between Turkey and the EU, in addition to the protracted membership negotiations, there is a genuine debate emerging within Turkey about whether SCO membership is not a better alternative for Turkey than EU membership (Wang, 2013; Erşen, 2013). President Erdogan of Turkey has expressed some consideration of this debate (Bertrand, 2016; Butler and Tattersall, 2016) and indeed Turkey is set to chair the SCO’s energy club in 2017 (Daily Sabah, 2016). It is curious in this context that the discussion has not been framed as a debate between the EU and the Eurasian Union, but it is important to observe that the SCO has objectively displayed the potential to act as counter magnet to the EU as far as new members are concerned, even if comparing the two organisations, on the part of potential new members, is misguided. On the other hand, it may not be so misguided after all; in fact, it is plausible that, given current trends, the SCO may eventually develop into an alternative to the EU either on its own or through some form of merger with the Eurasian Union. This will be a topic of discussion in these discussion paper series as well series as well.

It is also worth observing in the context of Turkey’s internal EU/SCO debate, that the Eurasian Union has already registered a similar impact. For instance, Moldova’s President has recently indicated a willingness to rescind the country’s association agreement with the EU, apparently in favour of closer ties with Russia and the Eurasian Union (Dyomkin, 2017; Rettman, 2017). Notably, Mr Dodon has argued that the association agreement with the EU has hurt Moldova economically while providing no benefits (in fact, leading to an apparent decrease in trade with the EU) (Dyomkin, 2017; Rettman, 2017). It is instructive that commentators have started making the argument in defence of the EU in the context of Ukraine and Georgia as well (Jaiani, 2014). More interesting still perhaps from the perspective of UEF are the types of arguments made, with the foremost being economic in nature – that the EU is simply a much more attractive economic area to join with an economy approximately 5 times larger (Jaiani, 2014). In the context of the SCO, this argument may come back to haunt us, considering that any merger between the Eurasian Union and the SCO or a development of the SCO into a full supranational economic union, would include China’s economy into the equation. So it is perhaps important that the EU can and continues to offer something more than purely financial benefits not only to potential members but its current members as well.

Eastern Europe’s relationship with Russia

In the context of the above, it is important to remember that Russia (the leading member of the Eurasian Union and a key player in the SCO) has special connections to many EU Member States in Eastern Europe. For some, this connection stems mostly from the Communist era. In other cases, the connection is deeper and older – sometimes negative (as perhaps is fair to say is the case with Poland) sometimes mostly positive (as is the case in Bulgaria). In fact, Bulgaria is possibly the most pro-Russian of the former Communist Bloc Member States. The reasons for this are many, chief among them being historical gratitude for Russia liberating Bulgaria from Turkish occupation. It is also the case that Bulgaria has not felt the brunt of Russian aggression in the manner of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia for instance. This connection often yields tangible results in Bulgaria (depending on how such things are perceived) – for instance, the recent election of President Rumen Radev was seen in the West as such a result, with the former Air Force General being often perceived as friendly with Russia and being lukewarm on anti-Russian sanctions or a hardline stance on Crimea (Pawlak, 2016). But Bulgaria is not exactly alone. A good example is also Hungary – in fact, Hungary’s relationship with Russia has been described by some think tanks as “unique” in the context of the EU (Hegedüs, 2016).

A more detailed analysis of political and economic issues faced by Eastern European Member States follows in Part 2.

A version of this paper containing a full reference list is attached below the title.

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