Even in Defeat, the European Union Proves Its Worth
The European Union has been dealt a series of jarring blows in recent months. Its attempts to forge closer ties with eastern neighbors helped trigger a massive crisis in Ukraine, and Russia continues to contest its influence across the region. In May, anti-EU parties made major gains in European Parliament elections. Yet because of the union’s democratic underpinnings, each of these apparent setbacks contains the seeds of future success.
Rivals in the East
The Kremlin has made no secret of its hostility to the EU’s eastward expansion. In the months leading up to a November 2013 summit, at which a number of former Soviet states were expected to initial Association Agreements and free-trade pacts with the bloc, Moscow used virtually all of its levers of power to dissuade these countries from proceeding. Russian officials imposed or threatened arbitrary trade sanctions and gas-price increases, stirred up religious opposition to the EU’s support for LGBT rights, and mobilized separatist or political proxies to put pressure on governments.
So far, however, these tactics have convinced only Armenia to pull out of the EU agreements and prepare to join the new Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union instead. Georgia and Moldova initialed their EU pacts as planned, and both are expected to formally sign them later this month, despite continued Russian threats. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to move forward with EU integration in November eventually led to his ouster, as citizens rose up to demand the greater prosperity and better governance they associate with the union.
The crisis in Ukraine has brought considerable bloodshed and destruction, but it has also caused the authoritarian regime in Russia to truly bare its fangs, dispelling—for all but the most willfully blind—any illusion that it could serve as a helpful or even acceptable partner to the EU. It is now clearer than ever that Europeans face a stark choice between democracy, justice, opportunity, and peace on the one hand, and dictatorship, repression, corruption, and aggression on the other.
The findings of the newly released Freedom House report Nations in Transit 2014 dramatically illustrate the stakes of this choice. All of the 10 formerly communist EU member states assessed by the report are now rated as democracies, benefiting to varying degrees from free elections, independent media and courts, and good governance. On a scale of 1 to 7, they boast an average score of 2.50.
By contrast, the 12 Eurasian states covered by the report manage an average democracy score of only 6.00, and nine of them are rated as authoritarian regimes. Only Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine escape this designation. Residents of the Eurasian region, or at least the 78 percent living under “consolidated” authoritarian systems, must contend with pervasive, institutionalized corruption, security forces that routinely commit abuses with impunity, propagandistic state media, and rigged elections that offer no hope of change or reform.
Given these two options, it is little wonder that most European countries still outside the EU, particularly in the Western Balkans, are determined to get in. And the positive role of the candidacy and accession process is apparent in the Nations in Transit scores. Although the report’s full coverage area, from Central Europe to Central Asia, has suffered an overall decline in democracy each year for the past decade, the Balkan states have bucked the trend, registering progress for most of that period. Reform pressure from the EU deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this.
It is precisely because the EU has been driving democratic change across a region with little history of political freedom that authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin feel compelled to roll out the tanks. These rulers have fought back over the past 10 years, but they have failed to completely halt the process that began in 1989, and even now, 25 years later, they have nothing to offer as an alternative to democracy but war, lies, and bigotry.
Skeptics in the West
The electoral victories by Euroskeptic and extremist parties last month are cause for concern. These factions have called for withdrawal from the union and draconian restrictions on immigration, and several of their leaders have voiced admiration for—and forged closer relations with—Putin, praising him for defying the “totalitarian” EU and taking a hard line on “traditional values.”
But anti-EU parties still make up only about 20 percent of the European Parliament, and many analysts have attributed their gains to a protest vote by citizens who are frustrated with poor economic conditions, austerity measures, and an EU bureaucracy that often seems aloof, wasteful, and imperiously technocratic.
The fact that mainstream political leaders and EU officials are now vigorously debating an appropriate response to these grievances is perhaps the most hopeful sign that the system works. Although the Euroskeptics attack Brussels for being undemocratic, the European Parliament is, among other things, meant to facilitate more direct communication between voters and the EU administration. There are at least some indications that the leadership has heard the latest message loud and clear, and the newly elected parliament members will no doubt continue to prod at Brussels’ admittedly abundant weaknesses. One possible result—a leaner and more responsive EU—may not be quite what the extremist politicians are after, but it would likely please voters more broadly. This is the sort of self-corrective process that makes democracy so successful in the long run.
Regarding immigration, fears of an invasion by workers from the newer EU member states have been vastly overblown in numerical terms, and any intra-EU migrants can easily return home as economic conditions and personal circumstances change. A far more vexing problem is the sharp rise in illegal immigration. The largest numbers of illegal border crossers come from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea—war zones and dictatorships that produce desperate refugees seeking long-term asylum.
If European voters are concerned about this sort of migration, they should push the EU to redouble its support for peace and democracy around the world, not call for a return to atomized nation-states with minimal global influence. Indeed, a Europe of fragmented nations could invite not just refugees but the insecurity and oppression they are fleeing. Authoritarian behemoths like Russia and China would likely make short work of such a continent, asserting their political or economic dominance at will. The EU’s internal disagreements on current policy toward Russia are but a small taste of that scenario.
Euroskeptic and extremist parties’ warm feelings for Putin are particularly ironic in this context. Their electoral victories are products of a democratic environment that is nurtured and sheltered by Euro-Atlantic institutions like the EU and NATO, with each new member state expanding the realm of stability and freedom. In addition to seeking change at the ballot box, European citizens can pursue their interests through impartial courts, take their stories to independent media, or form associations to lobby the authorities and provide mutual aid. None of these options are available in authoritarian states, nor would they be in a Europe ruled by Putin and his fellow travelers.
* Includes 2004 and 2007 entrants from Central and Eastern Europe only. Croatia, which joined in mid-2013, is not included.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
The six countries of the Eastern Partnership program lag far behind their closest neighbors in the EU. But this is a testament to the bloc’s past successes, and a sign that it must help these states build up their democratic institutions.
The EU must create mechanisms to uphold media freedom in member states and stand firm against external adversaries of independent journalism.
To promote press freedom in this diverse set of countries, the EU will need to both step up its overall effort and customize its approach to meet the needs of each society.