An imminent halt in the European Union’s eastward expansion will create a new geopolitical reality in Russia and the EU’s overlapping neighborhoods.
Arguably, enlargement was the EU’s most effective policy tool. As the “European model” remains very attractive for the less fortunate states living on Europe’s eastern and southern periphery, the mere prospect of joining the rich club helped export European values and institutions to the former Soviet bloc countries. The incentive of membership served as an instrument for transforming the EU’s neighborhood, bringing stability and security to the territories on the Union’s eastern frontiers. It is broadly accepted that, but for the “carrot” of EU membership, most East European newcomers would not have been able to successfully complete the series of complex and painful reforms that they started implementing at the beginning of the 1990s.
So long as the promise of eventual membership is out there -- irrespective of how distant actual membership might be -- the EU has powerful leverage and is able to pursue its strategic interests in the adjacent territories. But if the enlargement process is put on hold and the “membership lever” removed, some analysts argue, there will be a completely different ball game where the poorly defined “European Neighborhood Policy” cannot serve as a viable alternative to full-blown membership.
Thus, a new geopolitical situation is likely to emerge in the “gray zone” between the seemingly ossified eastern borders of the 27 states of United Europe and the western borders of Russia.
First, the nature of the relations between Brussels and such European-leaning post-Soviet countries as Ukraine and Georgia will likely become even fuzzier. Following the EU leadership’s decision to pause the enlargement process to sort out the bloc’s internal affairs, Kyiv’s and Tbilisi’s European prospects, never too promising in the first place, can now be regarded as illusory. The EU’s reluctance to engage Ukraine and Georgia in a meaningful way will play into the Kremlin’s hands, as Russia is keen to restore its influence in the countries that radically changed their geopolitical orientation in the course of the pro-European “color revolutions.”
Second, Europe’s participation in the mediation and settlement of the “frozen” conflicts in the post-Soviet space will likely be negligible. The only exception is possibly Transnistria, due to the lobbying efforts of Romania.
Third, as EU enlargement grinds to a halt, the role of the United States, as sole superpower and leader of the Western world, in post-Soviet Eurasia will inevitably grow.
Fourth, since Moscow and Washington continue to have diverging strategic outlooks on the post-Soviet space, the U.S.-Russia rivalry in the region will likely become more intense.
Does this mean there is an end to EU softpower? If the EU expansion stop where it is, will it pick up again? The loss of the potential to join the EU to Ukraine would be devastating. This would be doubly so if the EU and world does nothing to stop the annexation of parts of the xUSSR republics by Russia [such as Transdnestr and chunks of Georgia].