Has EU lost its ‘carrot’?

Lesia Dubenko graduated from Lund University with a Master’s in European Affairs and now is a journalist in Ukraine

The EU’s foreign policy has previously developed by offering benefits. But with troubles in Poland and Hungary and ambiguous expansion policy, will Brussels open a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ approach?


The EU likes to see itself as exceptional — originally a trade project, it has turned into a union with benefits, incorporating the former Communist states and exercising regional influence. This image does sell well. Just recently the Western Balkan countries, including Serbia and Montenegro, showed enthusiasm after the EU declared 2025 as a potential membership date for these states, if they meet the conditions.

In a similar enthusiastic manner the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during his Davos speech had also expressed hope that the EU will announce the prospect of Ukraine’s accession in 2021, appealing to reforms and necessity to maintain societal stability.

The EU does realise that for Ukraine, which has been reinforcing its internal and external policy on the ‘European dream’ since the Maidan events in 2014, the membership is no less important than for the problematic ex-Yugoslavian region. But at the same time it cannot help but take time to self-reflect, as to what awaits it and how to proceed. More so, as it has now become clear that its regional influence is being weakened both inside and outside.

Thus, after the Soviet Union collapsed many, in the academic and political circles alike, had been entertaining the idea of the world moving into the post-modernist realm — a non-military, trade-prevailing international relations’ mode — with the EU acting as a role-model of prosperity and democracy re-ferred to as a ‘normative’ power. In this world, the EU imagined itself to be able to change others simply because of its attractive image and know-how.

However, the Balkan Wars, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Eastern Ukraine, the subsequent reliance on the U.S. military help and the arrival of the nationalistic Donald Trump in the Oval office all shattered its post-modernist aspirations showing that tanks remain as popular as trade deals.

One could very well argue that the post-modernist ideas were short-lived and partially naive to begin with. Yet the true and bitter awakening occurred when EU countries, which had long been granted the membership ‘carrot’, suddenly defied the Union’s key liberal principles.

In turn, Brussels unexpectedly found itself using ‘sticks’ towards not just the resisting third-countries, but also towards its members with the European Com-mission triggering the Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland. The often explosive ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt fanned the flames tweeting: “The European Union was built to guarantee our citizens’ freedom, democracy and the rule of law. If the Hungarian and Polish governments want to build closed and illiberal societies, they must do it outside the EU.”

‘Sticks’ only time?

Were Poland and Hungary to be outside the EU, they would have simple been reminded that there is a ‘carrot’ worth abandoning its old illiberal, autocracy-inspired ways for — the membership. Yet, both states are already in — and they are surprisingly prepared for the ‘sticks’. The Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban, who is feeling increasingly comfortable acting as the Union’s enfant terrible, received support from the Hungarian Parliament to block the European Commission’s initiative regarding Warsaw, while the Polish President Andrzej Duda is showing modest interest in Brussels’ actions altogether.

Moreover, both countries are embracing everything that the EU stands against — nationalistic, de-secularised, semi-authoritarian narratives with unequivocal historical ‘truth’. Thus, Poland has recently approved the highly controversial historical law aimed to penalise those claiming that the Poles cooperated with the Nazis.

But what about the third-countries? Once the European Parliament adopted the Eastern Partnership Plus it became clear that the European Commission President Mr. Juncker’s rather undiplomatic, yet blunt statement that ‘Ukraine for the moment is neither in the EU nor NATO’ reflects the EU’s position on further expansion in the East. The document which has fairly been described as a failure contains various aspects of intensifying cooperation with countries, like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova without, however, a clear membership prospect, a ‘carrot’, for the countries involved.

Instead of presenting that prospect, the EU has resorted to a ‘stick’, threatening to deprive Ukrainians of the long-awaited visas’ lift, if Mr. Poroshenko fails to establish the Anti-Corruption Court promptly. With the Ukrainian Parliament hesitating to adopt the law, and collapse of Ukrainian-Polish cooperation due to ‘irreconcilable differences’ in historical views, the Ukrainian near-future is looking full of ‘sticks’. And given its fragile society, appetite for illicit power con-centration, entrenched corruption, Kiev will eventually search for other, more immediate opportunities.

Like Serbia is already doing. The Balkan countries with their rich Yugoslavian years’ experience of balancing between the capitalist West and the communist East perfected by Josip Broz Tito and hunger for nationalist rhetoric are a dangerous lot. The EU is well aware of it and has now reintroduced the member-ship prospect both for Belgrade, Podgorica and others to win over growing China’s and Russia’s influence in the region.

The fear is clear: the EU recalls the atrocities of the Balkan Wars and the Union’s then powerless position and justly expects that sooner or later these countries will once again try to establish a ‘better’ citizen. In this case, Mr. Verhofstadt rightly underpins that the “EU must do everything in its power to fore-stall that scenario.”

However, will this ‘carrot’ — the most powerful one that the EU has its in arsenal — prove to be effective?

So far Belgrade, despite nurturing membership, is immensely irritated with the Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s refusal to make concessions regarding recognition of Kosovo’s independence. While the EU might believe that this is the right thing to do to protect, it will, however, see an inevitable rise of public dissatisfaction that the Serbian government. It will have to turn a blind eye, or find a clever way to deceive its European partners by employing dubious yet ubiquitous practice of promising everything to everyone.

Should Serbia resort to the latter and guarantee its electorate that once in the EU, it will ‘sort everything out’ by copying the neighbouring Hungary’s model of cooperating with Russia and building another semi-authoritarian state with its own history narrative, what ‘sticks’ will Brussels employ? Does it really have levers to stop this national and religious grandeur which is already happening in Central Europe?

The answers are strikingly ambivalent and leave Brussels with a tricky task of not just finding new ‘carrots’ both for the EU members and the aspirants, but also contemplating the effectiveness of this policy altogether.

Much like with the dreams of the world discarding tanks in favour of trade deals, the EU’s notion of serving as an unequivocal role-model who can pressure others is being slowly rejected in its own home, supporting the view of a German academic Hanns W. Maull who already in 2005 predicted that the membership’s value both for those inside and for those outside will decline over time.

And while the EU still realises that it has an appeal — whether for an overly-enthusiastic Ukraine, sceptic yet still European Serbs, or Mr. Orban who wants to stay but on his terms — it is also continuously being challenged.

The next big question now is can the Union turn a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ policy? Or will it eventually resort to the ‘sticks’ policy suppressing problems both inside and in its backyard, only to find them re-emerging with greater intensity?


Photo Credit – reetdachfan/Pixabay – https://pixabay.com/en/eu-european-union-flags-strasbourg-712739/

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