Soft Power and the EU's Neighborhood Policy

Soft power works and is changing theworld. The prospect of EU membershipis itself a powerful tool for change, and together with other instruments, such as diplomacy, trade and aid, has con-tributed to changing the world in amazing and sub-stantial ways.

I grew up in a Europe that was divided by the Iron Curtain. The idea of the Cold War coming to an end seemed remote, yet within just a few years the Soviet Union had collapsed and the arduous process of reuniting Europe had begun. Two years ago, that process culminated in the European Union's historic enlargement to include 10 new countries, eight of which had emerged from com-munist oppression. Today we also see a more peaceful Balkan region, with several Balkan states set on becoming EU members. The winds of change are still blowing across Europe.

All this is by no means enough and there is much still to be done. To achieve a more prosper-ous and democratic European "neighborhood" the EU needs to invest more energy, money and com-mitment in the process. It also needs to develop dif-ferent strategies for different parts of the neighbor-hood. The Ukrainians, for instance, are tired of be-ing dealt with in more or less the same way as the countries of northern Africa. Whenever I talk to Ukrainians or Belarussians, they stress the differ-ences between the two regions and their situations. Equally resented is the fact that the EU spends about 10 times more money on the Barcelona pro-cess of programs for Mediterranean development than it does on its eastern neighborhood, where it seems to operate much less effectively.

Now is the time to focus on the EU's neighbor-hood policy looking east. The controversial Be-larus elections, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its aftermath this year, and the so-called gas war last winter between Russia and Ukraine have all put the region in the spotlight and highlighted relations with Russia. Russia is the major player in our common neighborhood, and if Europe doesn't want to be left behind, now is the time to show the EU's commitment to these countries. To do so would mean Europe was acting in its own best in-terests, because stable neighbors mean stability for Europe as well. History shows us that prosperous countries have prosperous neighbors.

The prospect of eventual EU membership is a driving force for many countries in Europe, and is absolutely crucial to the development of the EU's soft power. The EU has to trust in its own attrac-tiveness and competitive global position and, at the same time, recognize peoples' desire to live in peace and prosperity. The membership perspec-tive will vary from case to case, of course. Look at the different situations of Ukraine and Moldova. EU membership for Ukraine may not be that far away (once stability is assured), while for Moldova it is a much more long-term propect. In the case of Belarus it won't be on the agenda for many years to come. But that is no reason to shut the door on even the most distant prospective member; the EU's policy on Belarus offers a good example of how it needs to develop a more active strategy.

Belarus borders the EU and almost half its trade is with EU countries. But the European Union lacks a credible policy for promoting eco-nomic and political reforms there. As a reaction to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's antics, the EU has no official links with the coun-try - not even a representative office. The result is that the Belarussian people, 60 percent of whom want to join the EU, are suffering from isolation even though this majority would like to see their country become a normal, democratic European nation. This was clearly seen in the demonstrations that followed the unfair elections in March.

EU policy should therefore focus less on Lukashenko and more on winning the hearts and minds of Belarussians. At present, the EU cannot hold out the carrot of potential membership. But it should make clear that it would like Belarus to join its neighborhood program as soon as its polit-ical circumstances change. Belarus could then ben-efit from the trade concessions, cooperation pro-grams and EU funds available to other EU neigh-bors. The EU should start off by publishing a draft action plan, spelling out both the reforms that Be-larus would be asked to undertake and the bene-fits that would then flow from the plan.

The EU should also open a full-fledged office in Minsk to promote contact between Belarus and the rest of Europe. It should make visas for Be-larussians easier and cheaper to obtain. It should finance more student exchange programs and more projects that help to develop civil society, such as training journalists, supporting indepen-dent broadcasters and encouraging trade unions.

The EU needs to talk not only to opposition politicians in Belarus but also to the more mod-erate elements within the ruling regime itself. In the various "color" revolutions that have swept across other post-Soviet states, most of the lead-ers did not come from the streets or out of exile. Many of the top bureaucrats in Minsk are com-petent, reasonable and silently opposed to Lukashenko. A number of them have resigned or been forced out. These people are potential fu-ture leaders and the EU should not shun them. One day, Lukashenko and his immediate en-tourage will be gone, but his officials will still be there and will be influential.

The EU cannot, and should not try to, replace Russia as Belarus' special partner, in terms of cul-ture, history and language. But nor should tit avoid the question of Belarus' future in its dealings with Russia. The EU should be asking the Russians whether they consider it in their interest to have a neighbor that is stable and democratic and which runs a working market economy. The answer to that question will define whether Russia and the EU merely have common interests, or if they also share the same values. This approach would, need-less to say, be equally valid in the cases of Ukraine and Moldova.

The EU's neighborhood policy in the east is weak. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics and satellite states have needed a hand from outside to become not just sovereign but truly independent. An impor-tant lesson to be learned from the gas crisis in Jan-uary of this year was that Russia still plays by its own rules. Its neighboring countries should of course have their special relationships with Russia, but that must not mean dependency. If the EU had, slowly but surely, helped them to adjust their domestic gas prices to world market levels, they would by now be truly independent countries, in-teracting with Russia and with the EU on their own terms.

What alternative to full membership can the EU offer? It is a question often asked when dis-cussing further enlargement, but I believe it stems from a somewhat backward way of thinking. The EU should offer a membership perspective to ev-ery country that wants it and is ready to fulfill the necessary criteria. It is the process of transforma-tion and the implementation of sustainable politi-cal and economic reforms that are the important achievements. The crucial point is not being an EU member, but wanting to become one. It is in this way that the EU can contribute towards trans-forming these countries into democratic, stable so-cial market economies.

Urban Ahlin is chairman of the Swedish parlia-ment's foreign affairs commitee