EU: Towards a wider Europe
George Soros

According to the European security document adopted in 2003, "It is in the interest of the European Union to promote a ring of well-governed countries on its borders with whom it can enjoy close and cooperative relations." The European Commission is now elaborating this principle in the form of a "Wider Europe Initiative."

But the initiative cannot fulfill its great promise as long as it stays within the Brussels bureaucracy. It needs to become a political initiative. The EU needs to reach out to its less developed neighbors. This is of vital interest to Europe but it cannot succeed without adequate political and financial support.

The most powerful tool that the EU has for influencing political and economic developments in neighboring countries is the prospect of membership. Unfortunately, the problems created by the current enlargement make it unrealistic to hold out membership to additional countries beyond the ones now under consideration - Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and possibly the Balkan countries.

In the past, the road to membership was paved with Association Agreements. The defining characteristic of the countries on the Eastern and Southern borders of Europe is that they lack many attributes needed for membership. The Wider Europe Initiative is meant to help develop those attributes. Association Agreements, although desirable, may not be adequate, as the EU's Balkan experiences indicate.

The EU began with the right idea in the Balkans: to bring those countries closer to each other by bringing them closer to the Union. Foreign ministries translated that idea into the Stability Pact, but finance ministers refused to finance it, so the pact remained an empty shell.

Then the European Commission took the idea and translated it into bilateral Stability and Association Agreements, so the original idea - regional reconciliation - got lost. As a consequence, developments in the Balkans are unsatisfactory, as the recent riots in Kosovo and Serbia demonstrate.

The Wider Europe Initiative also starts with a good idea: recognition that relations between the EU and its neighborhood are inherently asymmetric. The EU must promote democratic development in neighboring countries without expecting or demanding reciprocal concessions.

It should, however, expect and demand progress and tailor its assistance to the performance of the countries concerned. Conditionality may not be the right word to describe the relationship, because it implies that certain conditions must be met before the Union bestows benefits. Today, however, the EU must take the initiative and offer incentives; concessions could then be withdrawn if expectations are not fulfilled.

This means that EU policy must be tailor-made for individual countries. It would be desirable to set up joint working groups with the countries concerned to establish, monitor, and adjust individual action plans. The European Commission is already engaged in preparing such plans. They need to be given greater substance.

There is a fundamental difference between the EU's Eastern and Southern flanks. I am personally involved in the neighboring countries to the East, so I shall confine my remarks to that region.

Wider Europe in the East happens to coincide with Russia's "near abroad." While the EU cannot hold out the prospect of membership, Russia is happy to offer membership in a reconstituted empire. The EU must therefore offer inducements that outweigh pressure from Russia.

Such inducements are not hard to find: greater access to Europe's common market, more favorable visa regimes, job and immigration opportunities, access to capital, cultural contacts, and technical assistance. Admittedly, the Union's budget does not have space for the Wider Europe Initiative before 2007, but where there is a will there is a way. Giving substance to the initiative would offer an attractive alternative to the Bush administration's policy of spreading democracy by military means.

I established Open Society Foundations in all the countries of the former Soviet Union. They do on a small scale what the Wider European Initiative ought to do on a large scale: promote democratic development by supporting civil society while working with governments when possible. The less receptive the government the more important supporting civil society becomes. The same principle ought to guide the EU. A civil society component must be included in every action plan.

Individual action plans are urgently needed even before the general Wider Europe Initiative emerges. Elections are pending in Ukraine and Moldova, and abuses normally accompanying elections are on the increase. It ought to be possible to persuade governments in those countries to curb such behavior by holding out the prospect of substantial rewards.

Georgia's peaceful revolution is not replicable elsewhere, but it has made neighboring regimes nervous. They ought to be persuaded - through a judicious mixture of carrots and sticks - that strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions would work to their advantage. Georgia itself needs all the help it can get, which requires an emergency action plan different from the others.

Belarus seems beyond redemption, but appearances are deceptive. Because President Alexander Lukashenka's behavior is so outrageous, a change of regime becomes possible. EU member states reacted strongly when Lukashenka tried to sack the rector of the prestigious European Humanities University, and this, along with other developments, weakened his position.

Unfortunately, political conditions in Russia are moving the wrong way. After a chaotic period, Russia is shedding the few attributes of an open society it had acquired. Having failed to provide effective assistance, the West is no position to exert much political influence. The best way to encourage openness is by strengthening commercial and economic ties while ceasing to treat Russia as a nascent democracy. It is all the more important for the EU to take a more proactive role in the neighboring countries whose political orientation is not yet set in stone.

George Soros is Chairman of Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of Project Syndicate. Copyright: Project Syndicate, March 2004.