WHEN the European Union expanded to take in eight former Communist countries, leaders faced a conundrum: they did not want to keep extending the club eastward, neither did they want to tell Ukraine and others that they would be shut out forever. So they devised a middle way: the EU would offer to extend large parts of its single market to countries in eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Mediterranean rim, without making any promises of membership.
This European Neighbourhood Policy was meant to create “a ring of friends”. Ten years on, Europe's borderlands look more like a ring of fire. Libya has been in violent chaos since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. In Egypt one military ruler was replaced by another after a brief interlude with an elected president. Syria is suffering an appalling civil war. Georgia has lost territory after a war with Russia. Belarus languishes under the dictatorial Alexander Lukashenko. Two small countries, Tunisia and Moldova, are the closest thing to success.
For a time it looked as if Ukraine would join the list of failures. Last November, ahead of a summit in Vilnius of the EU and ex-Soviet countries, President Viktor Yanukovych caved in to Russia and refused to sign an association agreement with the EU that included a “deep and comprehensive” free-trade deal. This was a pyrrhic victory for Russia. Pro-European protesters took to the streets of Kiev and, after weeks of confrontation that culminated with the shooting of protesters, Mr Yanukovych ran away.
Opinions around Europe are divided about the meaning of events in Kiev. A recent paper by Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat, argues that the neighbourhood policy has failed. Modelled on the enlargement process, it “does not work for countries that do not want close association with the EU, and the absence of the carrot of future membership frustrates those who do”, writes Mr Lehne in his paper for Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. The slow process of enacting European standards, on everything from the environment to food safety, was designed for a stable world, not tumultuous revolutionary change. Others, though, are convinced that the victory of Ukraine’s Maidan protesters is proof that Europe's soft power can still trump Russian bullying.