For Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the case for integration with the EU is not as clear as it might seem. And that’s assuming that the EU is actually ready to integrate these new members.

An agreement with the EU puts Ukraine's economic ties with Russia at risk. Photo: AP

In the run-up to late November's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine hopes to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, the public whisperings in the U.S. and Europe about the prospects of European integration for a handful of post-Soviet countries in one stroke (Moldova and Georgia being the others) have become more audible.

However, the U.S. and European media generally cover only one side of the debate that has long been rumbling in the post-Soviet space: EU accession is described as the only sensible and proper course of action for the leaders of Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia to take. At the same time, the discussion is peppered with what can only be described as anti-Russian sentiment while the main question as to whether the EU is ready and able in its present state to integrate the new members is conveniently put aside.

In search of a new Cold War?

The anti-Russian point of view in the West is mainly put forward either by dyed-in-the-wool Russophobes and Cold War veterans, who have devoted their entire lives to uncovering the "evil plottings of Moscow," or by "professional democratizers."

For both groups, the crucial and animated discussion about the future of the post-Soviet space unfolding in these countries is a good occasion to hug the limelight and persuade all and sundry (themselves included) that, although the Cold War has ended, they should not be written off. In their view, Moscow, through various strong-arm tactics, is forcing these former Soviet republics to join not the EU, but rather, its own alternative Customs Union. The authors of these confrontational scenarios call upon the West to close ranks in the face of the Russian menace, as if a new Cold War were raging on all fronts. A question arises: what does this pressure consist of?

Unlike diamonds, preferential rates are not forever

In reality, the official aim of Moscow's "pressure" is to ensure that its neighbors properly grasp that if they make a geopolitical choice (which is their right) in favor of EU membership, they should not expect to continue to receive economic privileges from Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia made a whole host of concessions to its neighbors, be it simplified visa regimes, below-market energy prices, or favorable terms of trade. Many of these benefits remain to this day. It is the possible cancellation of these preferences that Western critics describe as a major tool of Russian pressure on the former Soviet republics being courted by the EU.

However, it is clear that if Russia's neighbors reject closer political and economic integration with Moscow, Russia will not go the extra mile to stimulate their economies. Not to mention the fact that Russia has no desire to bear economic losses in the event of these countries' European integration.

For instance, if Ukraine were to sign a free trade agreement with the EU while keeping its current privileges, European goods "disguised" as Ukrainian goods could make their way to Russia under the preferential trade arrangements between the two countries.

The EU looks east

Amid the fevered pitch of the current debate, advocates of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia's European integration have yet to elucidate what the economic benefits of EU membership will actually be, especially when weighed against the potential problems.

One of the key factors in the success of Europe's integration project was that future members were always clearly aware of the economic benefits. Of course, political factors were involved, too, right from the start: in particular, the desire by Germany and France to avert another war.

Over time, as the countries of Southern, Central, and finally Eastern Europe joined the union, these factors took on greater significance. The architects of the "united states" of Europe understood the importance of including all these countries in the integration project — initially to keep Soviet influence at bay, later to prevent the establishment of authoritarian regimes.

And, although the official face of Brussels does not talk about it openly, many supporters of an EU roadmap for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia say that both of these factors are again at work — the potential new members will be kept at arm's length from Russia and become full-fledged democracies.

But even within this logical framework, the questions are myriad.

There is no guarantee or even any kind of historical precedent to suggest that Western-style democratic standards will emerge. In particular, officials from Western countries in recent years have repeatedly criticized the leaders of Georgia and Ukraine for their lack of adherence to European political and legal standards.

It is also unclear who will foot the bill for the long and complex process required to integrate the newcomers. It will be an additional burden for Western and Northern Europe, which are already propping up the profligate South. There is a danger that these new expenses will undermine the European economy. The sums in question are not loose change:

For example, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, the cost of adapting Ukraine's technical regulations to European standards is a staggering EUR 165 billion, which the country's leaders expect to receive from the EU.

The spending required to help the new candidates could impair the internal legitimacy of the whole European project. There is no guarantee that EU citizens will support the union's continued eastern expansion.

The failure to adopt a draft European constitution less than ten years ago and the recent rise of Euroskepticism in Germany and Britain clearly illustrate the potential problems.

The Russian alternative

Russia's neighbors, in particular Ukraine, have an opportunity to decide what is more important for them: cooperation with Russia today, or unguaranteed EU membership in the distant future. And who knows how distant that future is? Let’s not forget that Turkey has been knocking on the door for half a century.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that deeper integration with Russia as part of the Customs Union could be the most economically viable option. Perhaps the most important element is that Russia does not rule out the future integration of the Customs Union with the Common European Economic Space. It is obvious that many enterprises in Ukraine with Soviet-era specializations would find it easier to sell their goods in Russia's Customs Union than in Europe, even if the hazy prospects of full EU membership did become reality.

Take, for instance, the criticism implied by Russia's periodic bans on the import and sale of Moldovan and Georgian wines and other agricultural produce because of the low quality. It is inconceivable to think Moldova and Georgia could ever compete with the products of Old World winemakers.

Moreover, agricultural producers in Central and Eastern Europe could tell their Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian counterparts a story or two about EU accession. And not very funny ones at that. Brussels has done everything it can to protect farmers in the "old" EU, resulting in the disappearance of the agricultural sector in parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

Today, professional Russophobes and certain politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, playing to the anti-Russian gallery in the hope of scoring some cheap political points, insist that the choice facing Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova between the EU and the Customs Union will shape the future not only of the countries themselves, but also of the West's "democratic" project. They suggest that Russia’s Customs Union is somehow anti-democratic.

However, in convincing themselves and others of the reality of such ideological confrontation, proponents of this viewpoint risk repeating the mistakes of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union often acted along crude ideological lines in what they saw as a zero-sum game. The Soviet Union, failing to ensure the development of an economy that became subordinate to political and ideological decisions, collapsed as a result.

Europe appears to be running the same risk as it marches forward with its political and ideological expansion against Russia, which today is a reliable economic partner for the majority of EU members. Russia also seems to have learned many lessons of the Cold War, offering its neighbors entirely reasonable terms of integration, the results and economic benefits of which are plain for all to see. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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