Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The ones left outside


Helen Szamuely

The trouble with expanding is that you acquire new neighbours. The EU is about to find out how true that is as it sets about busily building a new iron curtain across eastern Europe.

The new members are now, as one Polish politician put it, the border of Europe and, as such, have to strengthen and guard those borders against the … others who have been left outside. Chief of these are Romania and Bulgaria, who are supposed to begin negotiations for entry into the EU in the next few months with possible entry date pencilled in as 2007. As both those countries are very poor, backward and have a questionable political record, three years of negotiations, if they are to be meaningful, seems to be on the optimistic side.

That leaves the three former Soviet states that are completely outside everybody’s but Russia’s calculations: Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The three have not made a successful or even half-successful transition from Communism to a liberal democracy. They are poor and their economy continues to be mismanaged either in the old Soviet-style way in the case of Belarus or by new-style criminal business activity in the case of Ukraine.

All three have a bad human rights record. In Belarus another opposition politician was arrested in the last week. A spokesman for the opposition groups described Lukashenka’s activity as cleaning up the political scene. In Ukraine politicians and journalists who have tried to establish facts about the government and its various connections in the business world, have disappeared, sometimes reappearing in a very dead state, indeed. Some of President Kuchma’s former cohorts have escaped to the West and told extremely unpleasant tales.

Moldova, which will be the EU’s direct neighbour only if Romania becomes a member, has a special problem apart from the poverty, corruption and human rights abuse. One part of it, Transdnestria, proclaimed its separation in the early nineties with Russian support. After a prolonged civil war some kind of order was established but it is run in the approved Soviet fashion by Igor Smirnov, a Russian citizen. Transdnestria uses the ruble as currency and has Russian soldiers guarding it and, above all, Kobasna, a nuclear stockpile, that supposedly has 40,000 tons of ammunition in unknown condition and stability.

At present the EU has simply barricaded itself from the problems of these neighbours, hoping that the new borders will be strong enough and strongly enough guarded not to let either people or goods of varying legality through. Whether that will work is questionable. The new borders will be run by people who often have friends and family on the other side of them and who know that the only chance of any kind of a decent existence for the latter is to trade inside the new EU member states.

There have been numerous exhortations for the EU to get involved in the affairs of the new neighbours, to help economically and, specifically, to help sort out the mess of Transdnestria. The latter is almost impossible for the EU to do as it has no armed forces that could move in there instead of, or together with the Russians. And even though the weapons at Kobasna remain a major worry, the EU has been content to leave attempts to solve the seemingly permanent Moldovan crisis to the OSCE, a multinational organization of 55 countries that include, among others, Russia and the United States. The last four OSCE ambassadors to Moldova have been Americans.

As the International Herald Tribune put it on April 29:

“The European Union, in other words, is very much a sideshow on its own doorstep. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union – in the Caucasus republic of Georgia, or Central Asia, for example – the old superpowers are the players that really matter.”

Which is all very well, but the EU is boasting about being able to promote its rather shaky common foreign and security policy in many another part of the world. It just does not want to be bothered with problems near to it, even though those problems may well spill over into the Union itself and even though, by interrupting economic links between the new members and those left outside, it is actually contributing to a possible worsening of the situation as well as leaving the three countries ever more vulnerable to Russian pressures of various kinds.

In fact, there had been some kind of a plan to deal with the countries between the enlarged EU and Russia. In 2002 there was a discussion of a New Neighbourhood Policy. But the policy needed money that was not readily available and is not likely to become so, as enlargement proves to be a considerably more expensive exercise than predicted. Then there was the problem of politicians from the Mediterranean countries, this group including for the purposes of this discussion, France. Worried that enlargement would shift the balance of power definitively away from the south of the European Union, they demanded that money be spent on all the neighbouring countries, not just to the east. At present, we are waiting for a Commission proposal for another “action plan”, this time one that would outline terms of help to all the countries that more or less surround the European Union. How one plan can deal with, let us say, Belarus, Moldova, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia remains a mystery.

At least, one would expect the EU to have some kind of representation in the new neighbourhood. It is true that there will be no formally set up diplomatic EU diplomatic corps until the new constitution is accepted by all the member states (if, indeed, that will pass) but the Commission has had numerous representatives with diplomatic status in various countries for many years. At first, these had no special financial provision in the annual EU budget and money was taken out of general provisions for them. About ten years ago that changed, mostly under pressure from British parliamentarians and special budget lines have been assigned to what was clearly intended to be a budding diplomatic service.

Inevitably, the service claims poverty and lack of staff. It cannot possibly have an office in Ukraine or Moldova and would not want to in Belarus. For some unfathomable reason, though, there is a Commission office in New Zealand and Japan, though those are not near neighbours and have no particular problems the EU needs to help with. Undoubtedly, however, Tokyo or Wellington are much pleasanter places than Kiïv or Chisinau.

It is reasonable to argue that sending aid to these countries is pointless as it is likely to be misappropriated. Given the scathing reports the Court of Auditors has issued over the years on all the EU foreign aid programmes, the misappropriation can be said to be equally likely before the money gets to the former Soviet states as after. Nor is there much help in possibility of trade. Moldova’s main exports are wine, agricultural produce, textiles and steel. Similar exports originate from Ukraine and Belarus (without the wine). These are all subject to high tariff barriers and endless anti-dumping regulations.

The EU has still not learnt the very clear equation: if we do not take these people’s surplus produce, we shall have to take their surplus people. Though westward migration continues to be a serious problem for the countries that are being deprived of their most enterprising and talented people, it is the EU that is fearful. Will the new immigrants take the jobs and undermine the bloated and expensive welfare provisions? Will they make a mockery of all the elaborate schemes of protection and border control that are being put into place as the last rejoicings over enlargement die away? The answers, which are unlikely to be cheerful, will not be long in coming.

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