THE question of where Europe’s eastern border lies has bedevilled statesmen for centuries. It has proved equally difficult for the European Union, which must decide how to deal with countries to its east that would like to join the club. In 2009 the EU launched the Eastern Partnership, meant to handle the European aspirations of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The idea was to promote economic integration and European values, and to fend off Russian influence—but with no promise that the partner states could ever join. Now, with a summit between the EU and the partners coming up in November, they are growing dissatisfied with the arrangement.
“Without a light at the end of the tunnel, completing the process will be very hard,” Tamar Khulordava, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s committee on European integration, told a conference in Riga last week. The six Eastern Partnership states have promised to meet 20 new targets before 2020, including some that may be unpopular, such as promoting sexual equality and forcing farmers to meet EU safety standards. European officials note that these are good things to do in and of themselves. But Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have already reached trade agreements and visa-free travel deals with the EU, and resent having to carry out difficult reforms that will not necessarily bring them any closer to membership.
Opposition groups, meanwhile, allege that their governments’ Europhilia is partly a cover for continuing corruption and repression. Moldova’s governing Democratic Party, backed by Vladimir Plahotniuc, an oligarch, loudly proclaims the country’s pro-European orientation. But it has made only halting progress in investigating the use of Moldovan banks in multibillion-dollar Russian money-laundering schemes.
In Georgia reformist momentum has slowed. The governing Georgian Dream party is influenced by its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a secretive billionaire. The bureaucracy, trimmed by the previous reformist government, has since been swelled by patronage, according to Giorgi Kandelaki, an opposition MP. The government has indulged in populism, banning foreign ownership of land and moving to write a prohibition on same-sex marriage into the constitution.
In Ukraine, which made its European choice in 2014 by staging a revolution, there has been little progress towards ending the oligarch-dominated political system. Recently the government has been suppressing anti-corruption organisations and has failed to reform its courts. As for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, they are to varying degrees autocratic and are closely knit into Russia’s security infrastructure. That sets them at odds with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which have territory occupied by Russian troops and would like security guarantees from the EU.
All of this strengthens the EU’s doubts about how far the Eastern Partnership should go. On September 16th Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine issued a joint call for the November summit to establish a road map to membership. Instead it may fall short of the last summit in 2015, which “acknowledge[d] the European aspirations” of the partner countries. The Netherlands and Germany, whose voters are allergic to further EU expansion, are reluctant to repeat that pledge. The best the partner countries can hope for is probably that Europe’s eastern border remains fuzzy enough that it might one day include them.