Literally on a daily basis, the nature of the European Union’s relations with its neighbours is called into question by the never-ending refugee drama on the EU’s southern borders, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the domestic struggles in Turkey and North Africa.
Any criticism of the EU’s relations with its neighbours is, first and foremost, a criticism of the EU’s self-image.
The instruments at the EU’s disposal for developing its relations with its neighbours do make it possible, at least to a certain degree, to speak of a uniform approach. Equally, though, the treatment of neighbours is characterised by individual nation-states’ activities. The divergent actions of individual member states vis-à-vis individual neighbouring states are in fact a political form of division of labour that allows the EU as a whole to react to developments more flexibly. The EU’s ‘common voice’ towards its neighbours is therefore a strange chorus that leaves ample room for the contradictory interests of individual nations and different factions of capital. Some of the clearest examples include the agreement between Hungary and Russia to ensure a nuclear power–based electricity supply and the exemptions from sanctions against Russia that were granted to French armament exporters and Austrian banks.
The criteria and instruments of EU enlargement policies establish an externally directed self-image that partners and future members need to adapt to. At the same time, though, this divides the EU’s neighbourhood and excludes Russia from the associated forums of communication and cooperation. In principle this is unproblematic on its own; however, it implies that the policy of enlargement is a policy of competition.
Conditions for access to EU resources, as reflected in the Copenhagen criteria, show the general direction of relations between the EU and its neighbours quite clearly. Enlargement policies, with their corresponding dimensions of association and accession, are an indirect attempt to intervene at the political and social levels. In the case of Yugoslavia, this combined a set of indirect and direct – i.e., military – instruments. Offers of membership to individual former Yugoslav states were connected to clear demands for political reforms, notwithstanding that the pacification of internal conflicts was to a certain degree also a goal. The demand for changes faced by neighbours who wish to become EU members or partners is in itself a characteristic trait of EU external relations. This is also true for cases of direct intervention such as that in Libya in 2011. In his analysis, Ingar Solty identifies three key factors motivating intervention in Libya: the ‘free flow of oil’, the ‘co-opting of the pro-democracy movement’, and the ‘re-legitimisation of imperialist war’.3
Yet these policies also constitute a hierarchy of democratic and social standards. Conversely, the different degrees of cooperation also mean that with increasing ‘distance’ there is a corresponding increase in tolerance of certain states’ failure to comply with standards, which is the same as saying that partners at different distances are measured according to different standards.
Conceptually, the neighbourhood (like the rest of the world in general) is seen as:
This process is reinforced through the export of consultants and experts, through co-operation in the nurturing of future elites, and through support in the development of state and other institutions.
Likewise, the Europe 2020 strategy6 explicitly states:
The Europe 2020 strategy is not only relevant inside the EU; it can also offer considerable potential to candidate countries and our neighbourhood and better help anchor their own reform efforts. Expanding the area where EU rules are applied will create new opportunities for both the EU and its neighbours.7
In 2014, the tone is a bit more cautious:
Globalisation is not just about facilitating trade and exchanges. It is about joining global value chains and delivering products, services and technologies that no individual country would be able to produce on its own. It is also about creating the conditions for a balanced partnership and development across countries, starting with Europe’s neighbourhood.8
At the global social forum in Tunis, Europe’s interest in North Africa was characterised in the following terms:
The logic behind this is very easy: To be successful in global competition the EU wants to have peaceful neighbours willing to be controlled by the EU; it also wants to avoid ‘bad surprises’ such as social unrest; it wants to protect the EU from unwanted immigration, but at the same time receive highly qualified labour forces. It wants to reduce carbon emissions but at the same time provide the EU with energy and other necessary resources, while of course importing and enlarging the EU’s global influence. The main ways to realise this are: ‘security’, energy partnerships, infrastructure investments, liberalisation and free-trade ‘growth’ strategies.9
Colonial, neo-colonial and/or imperial traditions all resound here. However, new interests or changes in neighbouring countries make it necessary to revise traditional patterns. The accession of Eastern European states changes the determining factors in the relationships with Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The debates surrounding the relationship with Turkey flow into the discussions revolving around the EU’s cultural identity; the Arab Spring has made it clear how selectively the EU and its member states have applied the criterion of community of values. Attempts to selectively expand the interior sphere by signing association agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia have created new tensions with Russia along wellworn lines, whilst also posing new challenges for enlargement policy as such as well as ‘domestic and social policy’. Within these countries, as in Ukraine and certainly in the Middle East and in North Africa, the social question is posed in myriad new ways. Intensive migratory movements from neighbouring regions create, even within the EU, new challenges for the configuration of the social sphere. In this area too, therefore, changes within the EU coincide with changes in the EU’s neighbourhood. The role and nature of families, aging, healthcare, and provision for children and the elderly are only some of the challenges blatantly omitted from the EU’s neighbourhood policy.
The EU’s absolute helplessness in addressing the Arab Spring as well as the unresolved and escalating conflicts and wars in the Middle East demonstrate that EU schemes to develop its neighbourhood ‘to its own liking’ and ultimately without an opportunity for independence are now less feasible to implement than ever. Ukraine’s domestic crisis must also be understood against the background that the EU, through NATO, has been attempting this since 1997:
NATO and Ukraine agreed upon a ‘distinctive partnership’ in 1997. The NATO-Ukraine commission unifies a broad structure of mechanisms, panels, and programmes for dialogue and practical collaboration to support Ukrainian efforts for reform in particular in sectors such as security and defence policy and contribute to the democratic development of the country. Individual NATO members as well as NATO itself support measures and cooperation projects such as strategic counselling, professional development, and the deployment of trust funds, and they send advisors to NATO’s liaison office in Kiev (German government communication).10
The justification and configuration of plans for an EU police mission to Ukraine follow a similar pattern, which either ignores Ukraine’s deepseated internal contradictions or implicitly reinterprets these contradictions through social state patterns of conflict resolution (German government communication).11
The instability of neighbouring regions cannot be resolved if the living conditions for the broad mass of people do not change. Demands for democratisation are hollow as long as there is no socio-economic basis for democracy. Meanwhile, however, demands for the liberalisation of market access and the privatisation of public services (in places where these are public) thwarts the development of any such basis.
In an analysis of the Libyan war in 2011, Erhard Crome concludes that
preventing further wars in the Middle East will depend on all players realistically seeing and treating this region not only from the perspective of economic and ‘security’ interests. The current upheavals in the Middle East are a visible expression of the strategic and historic failure of the West’s efforts to permanently control, dominate and exploit this part of the world. In turn, these developments will contribute to further global changes.12
Notwithstanding internal contradictions, the EU and EU member states have indeed constituted an internal and external sphere in line with the Lisbon strategy. This has not provided the anticipated results, however. First of all, the conflicts already described have escalated and new conflicts have arisen (in Ukraine and Syria). Meanwhile, the neoliberal orientation and financialisation of neighbouring societies, also encouraged by the EU, have ended up polarising and destabilising these regions. Moreover, the EU has built strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich and financially strong Arab powers, which destabilise neighbouring regions out of their own interests. As in the EU itself, social upheavals repeat themselves. The distinction is that outside of the EU, more or less openly authoritarian political systems have developed that accord religion (Orthodox Christianity in Russia and Georgia and mainly ‘political Islam’ in the other regions) an important role (Alikberov and Seifert 2014).
Alnasseri describes the issues of the 2011 crisis in North Africa in the following terms:
To understand the current situation, we must understand the conditions necessary for state power: neoliberal restructuring, the restructuring of social classes, changes to the governing state party, the imperialist embeddedness of the state, brutal disorganisation, and changes to the balance of power within the state apparatus. All of these developments created new contradictions, clashes of interests, and conflicts, which finally erupted due to both increased resistance and regional shifts (including the geostrategic weakness of the US and its allies in the region, economic crisis, political blunders of state parties, and the alienation of parts of the ruling classes and state players).13
In the EU’s neighbourhood, the balance of power is shifting. Turkey is becoming an ever more influential and confident economic power. Countries such as Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Iran, and Turkey14 have developed different variants of capitalism that compete with the EU’s social model of capitalism, which was previously predominant. Israel, too, is increasingly capable of asserting its independence vis-à-vis its neighbour the EU (as well as the US). Far from being modifications of West European or North American capitalism, these new variants already have a history of their own. Attempts by international organisations such as the WTO to incorporate them into, and domesticate them under, the ‘old’ capitalist model are only succeeding to a limited degree. Property relations, social classes, and class interrelationships have developed here on a different basis, which is nonetheless symbiotically tied into the neoliberal model of society. One particularly characteristic trait is the weak position of wage earners. In that sense, Russia and Turkey do not represent past forms of capitalism but rather possible future models.15 At the same time, this is also provoking new alternative models, such as the democracy and statehood concepts that have developed out of the Kurdish struggle and which are currently being experimented with in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).
In Russia, political decision-making processes mainly take place ‘in the shadows’, and the ‘underground economy’ comprises around forty per cent of the total economic output.16 Thus this EU neighbour’s actions are governed by a different logic and dynamic and driven by different interests than those that hold sway in the ‘old’ EU states, whose political systems are based on their welfare state compromise. Accordingly, Russia assesses the EU according to its own logic and classification scheme, not by fitting it into a paradigm established by the EU. Moreover, through its ever closer cooperation with China, Russia, as a BRICS member, is putting increasing pressure on the global power structure dominated by the EU and the US. The EU and US sanctions against Russia are accelerating this process and pulling other states into the new constellation, as highlighted by the violation of sanctions against Russia by a number of Latin American countries.
In fact, the differences emphasised by official propaganda are compensated by similarities and by the convergence of a set of contradictions to which diverse political forces must adapt. The similarities between people’s living conditions and between the social movements is becoming more evident, as are those between the strategies of those in power to resolve conflicts. The privatisation of the public sphere, the poor working conditions within cooperative chains and value-added chains, the destruction of nature through large-scale projects, and the growing tendencies towards precariousness and poverty are all unifying elements that are beginning to find expression in new forms of protest and organisation. Without being considered global by themselves or others, they are, nonetheless, global from the outset.
In terms of those in power, one salient feature is the increase in the strength of fascist and right-wing populist forces simultaneously with authoritarian forms of conflict resolution. This is true at the levels of the individual state, the EU, and the EU neighbourhood. An extreme example from Germany is the blatant tolerance of fascist tendencies in society by the police and the intelligence community, as became apparent during the court case against the National Socialist Underground right-wing terrorist group (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, or NSU). At the same time, protests against right-wing extremism are frequently criminalised.
Regarding the role of far-right parties, an analysis of European Parliament elections concludes:
The social question is linked to national and even nationalist goals, i.e., social policy must be secured nationally, both against the EU Europeans and against asylum-seekers and immigrants from elsewhere. What is at issue is no longer the character of socially, culturally, and pluralistically open societies within the EU and definitely not outside of it. With the linking of social and national issues in such a way as to target not only the nation-state dimension, but also the immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees within countries, a new revival of value conservatism is arising.17
The sometimes violent social debate on the role of religious and ethnic plurality as well as tolerance and its limits (the debates on the hijab, circumcision, and ritual slaughter among others), as well as the radicalisation of the political in religion (political Islam and Christian fundamentalism) are also a result of the neoliberal restructuring of societies both internally and externally as promoted or compelled by the EU. The consequences of these simultaneous processes are widely underestimated. With regard to Ukraine, the combination of nationalism, xenophobia, and social conflicts has been described as a fundamental problem for the prospects of Ukrainian society.18 An analysis of the social conflicts, though, provides an interesting insight. Whereas the protests against social deficits are organised mainly ‘by grassroots movements’, nationalist movements are often driven by parties and other established forces. As Anastasiya Ryabchuck writes:
Despite the interest of the media and political parties in highlighting the political and ideological protests in the country, the biggest protests in the last three years were concerned with socio-economic issues: mass protests to oppose changes in the tax code that would have hit small entrepreneurs hard, against changes to the labour code that would have restricted workers’ rights, against educational reform that would have encouraged commercialization of higher education, against a cut in subsidies to Chornobyl liquidators and Afghan war veterans – to name some of the biggest protests at a nationwide level. At city level, protests against privatisation of public space (in particular – illegal construction projects in backyards and park areas) or over environmental issues (like the mass protests in the most polluted Ukrainian city of Mariupol) are most common. Cases of corruption and violence on behalf of city officials and police also lead to significant grievances, as in the small city of Vradiyivka, where angry citizens attacked a police station after a rape of a 29-year old woman by three men, two of whom were policemen.19
The way the conflict in Ukraine is interpreted, as one fundamentally between Ukraine and Russia, which is the typical reading in the West, is in itself a contributing factor of the current situation. The attitude that a social conflict may never under any circumstances be legitimately carried out in a militant fashion has become the basic perspective of all EU initiatives, an attitude that has fed the looming globalisation of the conflict. At least in this respect, the governments of the EU, Ukraine, and ultimately Russia all agree. The violent reactions to the protests against the Troika’s policies and other anti-social measures during the crisis within the EU point in the same direction. Furthermore, these protests reveal that new resistance practices that have developed in the movements and upheavals in EU neighbour states (the Arab Spring) have found echoes in the EU. This questioning of state power is underpinned by a questioning of changed economic power relations as a consequence of globalisation and corresponding social upheavals.
This tendency is most markedly visible in the EU’s immigration and refugee policies,20 which starkly contradict its principles as a ‘community of values’ and serve as a focal point for all other contradictions. By construing the threat as an ideological one, an internal state of emergency is declared that masks the true problems in society.21 Frontex, police cooperation, and the restructuring of the military, the partial privatisation of what used to be military or police functions, and privatisations in the field of counter-intelligence and protection of data privacy are all directly or indirectly ideologically motivated and determined by changes in the EU’s neighbourhood. Neoliberal globalisation thus inevitably combines with a new nationalist tendency and the rise of nationalistic and rightwing populist political movements and parties, which in turn reproduces instabilities in neighbouring countries, creating the basis for new repressive instruments. At the same time, the democratic rights that are protected within the EU continue to offer relatively favourable conditions for the organisation and self-organisation of emancipatory movements. Still, this is the same democracy that restricts opportunities for immigrants and represses corresponding emancipatory movements in the EU’s neighbourhood. This is the catch-22 situation into which the left is constantly thrust and from which it must seek to break free.
The developments described can be broken down into the following fissures that are changing the EU both from within and without:
Confronted by all these tendencies, the left must still decide where to place its focus. The analysis shows that the evolution of relations between the EU and its neighbours is intimately tied to the EU’s internal balance of power. At the same time, this development is a tool allowing it to cement this balance of power, that is, primarily the social balance of power, not the balance of power between member states. The EU’s propagandistic combination of economic interests, its aspirations to become a joint political superpower, and its sense of shared moral values, which are all fundamental elements of neighbourhood policy, make it difficult to develop alternatives. The left will be unable to act, whether at the national level or as a global movement, unless it bursts the current logic.
The problem lies in the makeup of the left and its relation to the EU’s self-image.
First, the left must overcome the polarising view that regards neighbouring countries’ social movements through the prism of governments, a view the left shares to some extent. The left must also break the vicious cycle of engaging in domestic repression (for example against refugees), giving preferential treatment to repressive neighbouring regimes (to ward off refugees and secure economic interests), and expanding the EU’s machinery of violence as legitimated by the aforementioned policies.
The crisis in Ukraine serves as evidence that large parts of the left spectrum are still (or once again) caught up in concepts of the nation–state and raison d’état and/or remain preoccupied by the narratives of the 1980s. Commitments made to ‘Ukraine’ or ‘Russia’ serve stereotypes that do not stand up to an analysis of the true interests of all sides. This includes a critical review of one’s own democratic system. Democracy needs to be clearly understood, without illusions, as a relation, as a balance of power, and as a prerequisite to political action. As such, we must defend democracy and harness it but also criticise its shortcomings. In particular with regard to neighbouring states, we should not hesitate to reiterate that democracy is not a gift that can be granted once. Rather, democracy constitutes an ongoing struggle, in particular against the demands of the new financial oligarchy and in the face of the changes to statehood within the entire region as analysed here.22
Second, solidarity between movements in the EU and neighbouring countries needs to be re-created or built anew based on the commonality of problems. Solidarity is currently delegated to party apparatuses. There are hardly any contacts between the members of left-wing parties within the EU and its neighbourhood, posing a significant barrier to joint and individual change. Organisations on the left need to offer opportunities to experience solidarity.
Third, a clear line needs to be drawn and joint action taken in response to all populist, far-right, and neofascist currents. Increasingly, it is nationalist tendencies and not the left that are defining the political framework behind social protests. Emancipatory hopes are pressed into a reactionary framework. Yet belittlement and attempts to confront right-wing populism with some sort of left-wing populism only play into the hands of the far-right.
This is closely tied to a fourth challenge, namely to jointly develop an alternative immigration and refugee policy. Papastergiou and Takou outline a possible left-wing immigration policy from a Greek point of view in the following terms: ‘Words that play a key role in the preparation of a different strategy for the issue of migration are: legalization, registration, fair examination process of asylum applications, integration, citizenship, international cooperation.’23
Fifth, the EU’s foreign relations need to be pacified. Violence has not been treated as the means of last resort in the relations with neighbouring states. In fact, when it comes to immigration policy in particular, violence and force against refugees are precisely the response that the EU demands from its neighbours. Tolerance of violence in neighbouring regions, insofar as it serves the EU’s interest, breeds new violence. This is clearly demonstrated in particular by the wars in the Middle East, where the constructed constraints allegedly require arms exports and the deployment of military personnel. The same is true for the acceptance of war and the rhetoric of war in Ukraine. This cycle must be broken.
Sixth, a conversation needs to be initiated in society concerning our way of life, the importance of the ‘national question’, how to deal with tendencies towards religiously motivated political action, and in general there needs to be a debate on moral values.
As a seventh and final point, we need to consider the best venue in which such strategic axes could be coordinated. In principle this should be the Party of the European Left (EL). If the EL is to have a political function, then it will have to ask itself how to organise international solidarity. The interdependence between the EU’s self-image and its relations with neighbouring regions, only briefly outlined here, requires a unified position and coordinated action on the part of EL member parties. A national vantage point is not sufficient to develop strategy and communication with the movements in neighbouring regions. In sum, the EU neighbourhood policy aggregates fundamental global conflicts as well as conflicts that exist within the EU. This demands a new level of global action.
Alikberov, Alikber and Arne C. Seifert, Religion und Transformation in Zentralasien und Südkaukasus, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Papers. Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2014.
Alnasseri, Sabah, ‘Revolutionäre ernten die Früchte selten: Der 17. Bouazizi 2010.’ PROKLA 41,2 (2011). Atanasov, Vitaly, ‘Three Sources of Ukraine’s “Freedom” -Nationalism, Xenophobia and the “Social Issue”’, transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue 8/2011.
Baier, Walter, ‘Right-Wing Populism in Europe’, transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue 9/2011.
Bundesregierung, ‘Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Jürgen Trittin, Dr. Tobias Lindner, Agnieszka Brugger, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN’, Drucksache 18/2029, Drs. 18/2198, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag, 2014.
Bundesregierung, ‘Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Ulla Jelpke, Sevim Dağdelen, Petra Pau und der Fraktion DIE LINKE’, Drucksache 18/2110; ‘Mögliche Unterstützung der Bundesregierung für die geplante EU-Polizeimission in der Ukraine’, Ibid. 18/2327, Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag, 2014.
Çakir, Murat, Neo-osmanische Träume. Über das Werden einer Regionalmacht. Artikelsammlung. Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Papers, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2011.
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Dell’Aquila, Dario Stefano, ‘Immigration Policies in Italy – Rights, Movements and Imprisonment’, transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue 10/2012.
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Hildebrandt, Cornelia, ‘Analysis of the Results of the European Election of 2014’, Berlin: IfG Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2014. Hildebrandt, Cornelia and Jochen Weichold, Europawahl 2014: Wahlprogramme der Parteien im Vergleich, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Papers, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2014.
Krysmanski, Hans Jürgen, ‘Elgersburger Thesen.’ Erhard Crome (ed.), Internationale Politik im 21. Jahrhundert. Konfliktlinien und geostrategische Veränderungen, RosaLuxemburg-Stiftung Manuskripte 80, Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2008.
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Papastergiou, Vassilis and Eleni Takou, Migration in Greece. Eleven Myths and Even More Truths. Athens/Brussels: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2014. Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (ed.), Flucht und Vertreibung im Syrien-Konflikt. Eine Analyse zur Situation von Flüchtlingen in Syrien und im Libanon, Studien. Berlin: RosaLuxemburg-Stiftung, 2014, <http://www.rosalux.de/publication/40677/fluchtund-vertreibung-im-syrien-konflikt.html>.
Ryabchuk, Anastasiya , ‘Right Revolution? Hopes and Perils of the Euromaidan Protests in Ukraine’, Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 22,1 (2014), <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0965156X.2013.877268>.
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