The EU might be suffering from its most serious bout of Euroscepticism yet but the lure of economic unions has not lost its lustre. An ambitious regional project from the East is in the works that could be the EU’s biggest threat, and not in the way you might think.
Russia’s answer to the EU is currently a three-member customs union (the other two being Belarus and Kazakhstan) actively pursuing expansion and deeper integration. They announced that by 2015 the customs union would become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), modelled after the EU. It already has some semblance of a supranational governing body, the Eurasian Economic Commission.
Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan has expressed his desire to be part of it, turning the country’s back on the EU. Other former Soviet states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are being courted, or depending on who you ask, bullied to join. Even India and Turkey have received invites, although it’s unlikely either will even entertain the notion.
To me the whole thing reeks of economic imperialism. A World Bank analysis finds that Russia is the biggest winner in its customs union – it “creates an opportunity for Russia to expand its exports and presence in Central Asia at the expense of exports from other regions, such as the European Union and China.”
But that’s not the threat I’ve been referring to. Some, terrified at the prospect of an economically dominant Russia, have called for the relaxation of accession requirements for former Soviet states like Ukraine, which is applying to join the EU. They fear those states falling into the grips of an opportunistic Russia.
But this brute zero-sum mentality should remain in the Cold War. Besides, the Eurasian Economic Union, even with the addition of Ukraine, Armenia and other eastern European countries, will consist of weak states with poor governments. Despite the region’s considerable energy resources, it’s unlikely to attract or sustain the kind of investment needed to generate an economy sophisticated enough to even closely rival Europe.
The EU accession requirements exist so that applicant countries must meet appropriate standards of governance and economic policy. That they do so not only ensures those countries don’t hurt the rest of the Union by dragging them down, but this also protects, and in most cases improves, the rights of citizens in applicant nations.
To remove these requirements to address an as-yet non-existent threat of the Eurasian Economic Union would be hugely problematic in the long run. The EU must stick to its guns.
Jason Li is researcher for Monocle’s Toronto bureau.