Europe will always be unfinished, because it is an idea as much as a geographic expression, and a rather idealistic one at that.
The European Union and a few countries which opted not to join, like Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland, have their problems – structural economic imbalances in the EU which threaten its sustainability, nationalism on the rise, democratic regression in countries like Hungary and Romania – but overall these countries are still among the wealthiest and the freest in the world.
The geographical dilemmas of completing a Europe “whole, free, and at peace” remain, however. The peninsulas and islands jutting into the northeastern Atlantic can be pretty sure they’re part of Europe, as can anyone living anywhere near the Alps. But the seas and straits between Gibraltar and the Caucasus and the Ural Mountains are a pretty arbitrary divide. The problem of only partial inclusion in Europe has been particularly damaging for the more than 260 million citizens of the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Ukraine.
The EU has its reasons to consolidate its troubled project rather than continue to expand to new countries. However, Western Europe has a record of sending contradictory messages to the countries in the continent’s east. These include extending candidate status to Turkey in 2005, then electing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy with their “privileged partnership” and non for Ankara; refusing to confirm the potential of future membership for Ukraine and Moldova, despite the EU treaties opening such potential to “any European State” which respects European values; expanding visa-free travel to all the Christian countries in the Balkans before any of the Muslim countries; and rhetoric from European Council President Herman Van Rompuy about European unification’s roots in Middle Ages Latin Christianity, which dismayed Bulgaria.
With Catholic Croatia now safely in the EU, 23 years after Germany unilaterally recognized its declaration of independence, and the four Eastern Christian countries in the bloc (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania) in not particularly good standing in the eyes of the older member states, many EU citizens would be happy to keep these borders. These are the realities of how a union of 28 disparate democracies handles the prospect of extending pooled sovereignty to some of more than a dozen countries further east. These nations are seen as less culturally similar to the older member states. Some are quite large, some quite small. They are fragile democracies at best, many fractured, several with breakaway enclaves. All are relatively poor. But ambivalence in EU capitals and mixed messages sent by Western European leaders imposes real costs and dilemmas on the democrats of Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other countries.
Extending the hugely successful European integration project to the east was always going to be a huge challenge. There are many reasons to call Europe’s eastern neighborhood policy a great success – the EU has absorbed 11 former communist countries (12 when you include East Germany), with over 100 million people. But some clear failings are seen with the three big countries in Europe’s eastern reaches. Although Russia and Turkey have had a good 21st century in many respects, with incomes and international influence steadily rising since the year 2000, it is not surprising that both of them as well as Ukraine have seen massive protests by pro-democracy / pro-Western citizens in the last three years, which autocratic leaders attempted to crush.
Russia, with 142 million people, was always too big and proud to join the EU. But Russia is clearly a part of modern Europe in many ways – economically integrated, if mostly as a source of energy sent through pipelines and oligarch’s cash spent in London and Switzerland, a member of political groupings such as the Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a participant in Eurovision and UEFA soccer tournaments. However, democracy failed in Russia, damaged by the chaos of the wild 90s and then smothered in the Putin era by an elite prioritizing its personal short-term interests and willing to ignore a clear long-term downward trajectory masked by high energy prices. European companies and many leaders – above all in Germany and the City of London – tried to look past Russia’s democratic failings and corruption. But if Berlin’s “Annäherung durch Verflechtung” (rapprochement through interdependence) worked, “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade) failed. Vladimir Putin watched as NATO expanded to Russia’s borders (as was the right thing to do – the Baltics had very good cause to want NATO membership), watched the Western intervention in Kosovo (again, the right thing to do in the face of ethnic cleansing), watched the U.S. invade Iraq (a grievous mistake in which the U.S. ignored some of Putin’s better advice), and suffered a major political defeat in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Putin’s anti-Western side was stoked and he transformed from a awkward partner of the West to an adversary. Russia took actions to destabilize its neighbors whenever they tried to move closer to the EU and the United States. Those who claim that the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy was wrongheaded are unrealistic or ideologues – it was necessary to try to mend ties with Russia and progress was made on nuclear reductions, Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, and Libya. Dmitry Medvedev was not completely a puppet as president. But in 2011 Putin announced he had decided to return to the presidency – a historic mistake for Russia – and responded to subsequent protests with greater repression. At the same time, Russia backed the Assad regime in Syria to the hilt as its killed tens of thousands of its citizens and radicalized the opposition. Washington – and importantly Berlin – have rightly responded with more vocal criticism of Putin and his regime.
Turkey, with a fast-growing population of 80 million, is about to surpass Germany on the population table. Many Europeans see it as too big, too poor, and too Muslim to join the family. Turkish membership would change the EU, and for EU citizens and leaders who follow the polls, the negatives of such a change outweighed the positives – greater diversity, stronger demographics, etc. – which required greater imagination to see. The arguments of those who saw the benefits were drowned out. Turkey’s candidacy has effectively been dead for years, buried by the hard opposition of several member states and ultimately by the subsequent actions of the increasingly dictatorial Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For many years, Erdoğan advanced democracy in Turkey by pursuing European integration and civilian control of the military. But his uglier side has been unavoidable in the last year, as his response to the Gezi Park protestors made clear to the world that he had a purely majoritarian view of democracy and did not respect those of his countrymen who disagreed with him. Challenged by a corruption scandal, Erdoğan has responded with purges in the criminal justice system and banning Twitter. He may have substantial support, as the most recent elections again confirmed, but at this point he is clearly damaging Turkey’s democracy.
Ukraine, with 44 million people, is where the autocrats – Putin as well as Viktor Yanukovych – failed. Corruption is even worse in Ukraine than in Russia or Turkey and the country has been consistently misgoverned. Persistent Russian interference, often using its energy monopoly as weapon, has not helped. Critically, the EU has also refused to make clear whether or not Ukraine could ever become a member, limiting politicians’ appetite for reform. President Viktor Yushchenko made a mad dash for NATO membership, despite such a move (and his government) being unpopular within the country, but at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, Germany and France stopped a Bush Administration push to give Ukraine – and Georgia – a Membership Action Plan. Ukraine’s diversity gave it a more competitive and indeed chaotic political space than many of its fellow post-Soviet states, while it remained a fragile economy with terrible government finances and was walloped by the global economic crisis in 2008. In 2010, Yanukovych, rejected in the Orange Revolution, won a fair presidential election, then surprised many in the West with the aggressiveness of his monopolization of the levers of power. He also made moves which pleased Russia, like unconstitutionally extending the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s base by 25 years. But with the EU offering an Association Agreement including a comprehensive free trade deal, Yanukovych balanced Brussels and Moscow for his own gain as long as he could. In November 2013, his time ran out, and he chose Moscow and gave impetus to the EuroMaidan protests. If he hadn’t used violence against the protests when they were relatively small and imposed draconian “dictatorship laws” in January 2014, Yanukovych might still be in power. Instead, he ended up fleeing in February after several bloody days in Kyiv and an abortive deal brokered by the EU. Ukraine swung west and an incensed Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Now Ukraine faces major difficulties in maintaining control of its territory even without Crimea, given the activities of secessionists in the east directed and/or inspired by Moscow, while its economy remains on the brink of collapse, elections must be helped, and difficult economic reforms must be implemented.
So all three countries are severely troubled. Russia and Turkey look more autocratic than they have in decades, while Ukraine reached that point earlier in 2014 and currently remains at acute risk of state failure. All three are divided countries, their places in today’s Europe – which for people many means the EU, NATO, or both – are vexed. The reasons for this are manifold, the products of geography, history, economics, and domestic politics and foreign policy in dozens of countries. China’s economic performance over the past three decades has given autocracy a good name, while Putin’s model of so-called “sovereign democracy” has inspired imitators. The United States, leader of the free world, allowed its financial system to blow up the world economy, setting some countries back by a decade, and characteristically did nothing to deal with the root causes of the problem. Both the U.S. and the EU are distracted by internal problems, some very serious, and fatigued with foreign policy and enlargement. But Russia and Turkey heading fast in the wrong direction and Ukraine in chaos are very dangerous indeed for Europe and its allies across the Atlantic.
It is in the enlightened self-interest of Europe and the United States to help Ukraine stabilize and succeed as a less corrupt democracy in which citizens can meet their aspirations and to incentivize democratic development and European integration in Russia and Turkey. But success will require more creativity and generosity than has been in evidence in recent years.