Where they go – into the EU or somewhere else – will be very important for Europe’s global weight in the coming decades.
Today, none of the swingers inspires much confidence.
But the West must not lose sight of this strategic challenge.
With the “swing states,” the EU must remain true to its principles, but be creative and pragmatic.
Because losing them would be fateful.
Today, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan faces resistance from citizens who fear he is an authoritarian Islamist politician at heart, to which he responds with harsh measures.
In Ukraine, President Yanukovych claims that EU integration is his strategic goal, but lawsuits against political opponents, doubts about allegedly corrupt government practices and the allocation of assets in privatizations to the President’s family on a scale hitherto unknown get at least as much attention as reform efforts of his government and his pro-European declarations.
Georgia is another country that falls to a certain extent in the same category, even though it is smaller and farther away.
Georgia’s Prime Minister inspired hopes among some that he would improve on those shortcomings of President Saakashvili’s that tainted his impressive achievements as a reformer.
But for now, few would say that things have gotten any better.
The EU has been clear in its criticism of these countries.
They are swinging dangerously, and they are not swinging in the direction where the EU should want them to swing.
What is happening in Ukraine and Turkey goes against the standards and values Europe adheres to.
The EU rightly insists on principles like the rule of law, because they are key to stability and prosperity.
But those neighbors who don’t deepen their integration with the EU may get into the magnetic field of Russia, which is under Vladimir Putin trying to re-build a zone of influence to ensure it has the weight on the continental and world stage it feels it deserves.
To be sure, there’s no imminent danger that the “swing” countries are about to willingly attach themselves closely to Russia.
Yanukovych’s government remains in a bitter conflict about energy prices with Moscow and keeps rejecting invitations to the Russian-led customs union.
Even the President’s critics acknowledge that he prefers to be uncontested ruler in Ukraine to being a subordinate of Vladimir Putin in a post-Soviet integration structure led by the Kremlin.
And Turkey is way too driven in its ambitions to be a regional leader and global player to align itself firmly with Putin’s Russia.
Still, the EU faces a dilemma.
Should it insist on its values without compromise, singling out each government act violating these values.
Should it put further integration steps on hold as long as these issues are not addressed?
In the case of Ukraine, some members of the European Parliament (the European People’s Party, former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s partner), are pursuing just such a muscular strategy.
They insist that no Association Agreement can be signed until Yulia not only gets released from jail but is also allowed to participate fully in the political process again, including the right to run for office.
That is not the best approach.
Russia’s top priority is expanding its range of influence.
If the EU refuses to sign in Vilnius, surely Moscow will renew its offers of discounts on the gas price and other perks if Ukraine joins the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Ukraine may then say yes.
This would not only be against Ukraine’s long term interest (the Russian Federation could hardly ever accept Ukraine as an equal partner).
It would also not be in the EU’s interest.
In the EU’s interest is integration with the “swing states.”
Because integration does work, even with difficult partners.
Ukraine’s joining the WTO has led to Ukraine starting to implement WTO regulations.
Yes, the implementation goes slowly and incompletely.
Yes, Ukraine startled the WTO by announcing it wanted to re-negotiate hundreds of tariffs, putting the whole delicate global structure at risk, but there’s no denying that accession does have the palpable positive effect of pushing things in the right direction and it’s fair to predict the same for EU accession.
Also, the process of integration allows you to support the “forces for good” in a country effectively.
In all the swing states there are relatively “good guys” in politics, business, society and the media, with whom the EU can work – but only if it does not put its relations with the respective country on hold and thus makes any contact to the EU an oppositional activity.
Of course, the EU cannot ignore if a partner country – and potential future member country – disregards European values.
And Brussels must speak with a very, very clear voice, make no compromises on the basics, retain the means to exercise pressure, because everything else is seen as weakness by the swing state leaders.
But for example in the case of Ukraine, the ratification process of the Association Agreement will take years, and any new cases of politically motivated selective justice, attempts to grab media assets to stifle political debate, blatant cases of self-enrichment will be a clear reason to put the ratification process on hold.
The EU should aim at signing the Association Agreement for strategic considerations, unless Ukraine makes glaring new blunders that make the process embarrassing for the EU’s values.
Brussels should adopt a strong but flexible policy of increasing engagement and integration.
As long as a country’s aggregate evolution goes in a better direction than before, increased integration is the right policy – not so difficult for Ukraine, considering that pretty much everything went wrong there in past years from an EU perspective.
On concrete issues there must be pragmatic solutions where both sides show some give and take.
Yulia Tymoshenko out of jail but temporarily out of politics – creative solutions of that kind would be acceptable if the Ukrainian government shows good faith and overall improvement toward EU standards.
Improvements in the overall direction of the country in exchange for further integration steps, and a pragmatic approach on difficult individual issues – that would be a good deal for all concerned.