Challenges for Europe’s Policies Towards Eastern Europe

Eine  Menschenmenge, die Plakate mit dem Slogan für die Integration der Republik Moldawien in die EU hochhält: "Wir kämpfen für Europa", und vielen Botschaften an, Štefan Füle: "Ich danke Ihnen, Herr Füle"

The crisis in Ukraine with all its reverberations comes at a moment when the EU and the European project are very weak and while international insecurity is on the rise. As a result the Perspectives for the EU’s Eastern Partnership will have to change.

It is not clear whether EU member states truly share any political priorities. Naturally, there is a laundry list of major issues EU member states, leaders, institutions, and lobby groups have identified as fundamental challenges for the European project – stabilising the Eurozone, promoting growth, restoring legitimacy to the EU, boosting the single market as well as the digital agenda, and stemming the erosion of European influence around the world. Around these areas and the different questions they entail there is a periodic cycle of negotiations, compromise and investment in resources.

Many factors conspire against the EU working in a sustained manner around just two or three strategic objectives. This impacts on both domestic EU politics and foreign policy. Europeans are struggling to meet demands on two fronts with, on the one hand, persistent economic travails and political instability in many member states and, on the other, the rise of Europhobic forces and foreign policy challenges (Ukraine, ISIS, Syria, Libya, etc.).

Moreover, there are frequent disagreements on EU priorities. Think of the tensions surrounding the Eurozone (growth agenda vs. fiscal consolidation) or the dilemmas regarding EU engagement in its Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood – at a time when crises threaten European interests in both.

Anything that goes beyond goals that are rather vague such as “promoting stability” or “ensuring respect for peace frameworks” is subject to controversy, as priorities and interests vary within the EU – and with that the preferred courses of action in several key foreign policy areas (see the debate on arming Kyiv).

On top of that, today’s foreign policy priorities tend to change frequently because of concurrent crises as well as fragmented governance and security mechanisms. The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) regularly discusses the crises in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Ukraine; however, the governments of member states will often prioritise domestic problems, thus diluting any concerted EU effort. The result is that Europeans lack any grand strategy and have to rely on responses that are purely tactical in nature.

Perspectives for the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP)

1. The EaP proper

After the crisis in Ukraine the EaP will have to change in the following areas:

  • Russia views the EaP as an attempt to strengthen the EU’s geopolitical clout and has shown that it will counteract such a policy – and even go to war to defeat it. This has lead to regional realignments (in Armenia, Belarus, etc.).
  • However, there are several paradoxes. One is the limited nature of a normative approach in a neighbourhood not amenable to the integration tools that may have worked in other contexts (this also applies to the South). For Europe, it would be foolhardy to stick to the same policy without assessing the actual context. What the EU needs is a broad array of tools and strategies that go beyond the confines of the EaP with its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) etc. Instead, NATO, the OSCE, and the EU-US relationship are back at the centre of foreign policy.
  • By the same token, the EaP can no longer be viewed as separate from security policy towards Eastern Europe (and Eurasia), including NATO, positions on frozen conflicts, etc.
  • Perhaps to the dismay of the Brussels elites, the current crisis has shown that the EU has some geopolitical clout; the impact of its policies however is still asymmetric (vis-à-vis Russia and others). The EU does make decisions that have a strategic/geopolitical impact (e.g. DCFTAs, sanctions), yet the rather loose consensus within the Union means that it is difficult to sustain leverage, or adapt and react to situations the EU has contributed to but does not really control. The crisis in Ukraine confirms this paradox.
  • Another key dilemma are the tensions between the EU’s geopolitical agenda and its transformation and deep democratisation agenda. Europe’s main geopolitical tool is the pull it has on other countries and societies. This means that often profound structural hurdles (e.g. poor governance, lack of pluralist democracies) and challenges (e.g. the role of the elites) are ignored in order to rapidly anchor these countries in “Europe.”

2. The EaP and the EU’s internal dynamics

The crisis in Ukraine with all its reverberations comes at a moment when the EU and the European project are very weak and while international insecurity is on the rise.

There are a number of challenges:

  • Security vs. economic security. Whenever growth is sluggish economic security is paramount. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack and out of fear of domestic ISIS-style jihadism this may be changing, nevertheless, a new security agenda will not necessarily prioritise Ukraine but will rather focus on security concerns closer to home.
  • Some of the same forces that attack the EU’s shortcomings and demand more democracy (although usually from a national perspective) also reject the EaP. This is the case with UKIP, Syriza, Spain’s Podemos, and France’s National Front. Several such political parties are gaining influence in core EU countries (or are poised to).
  • Politically as well as socially there is a growing distance between Ukraine and Europe, a renewed East-West divide. Several Eastern and Central European countries such as Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic do not fully support the EaP. This is also the case with some Southern European countries such as Spain, although there the crisis in Ukraine has led to many discussions on foreign policy.
  • Key elements of the EaP (and much of its leverage with core countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia) hinge on ambiguous promises of integration – promises that are often not fully supported by the member states and their peoples. The question is whether an EaP without enlargement can have any future.

I am not sure how these challenges and competing priorities can be reconciled. The debates in the European Parliament and in national parliaments have shown that there is a growing distance between Europe’s citizens and elites, and last week’s disputes between Greece’s Syriza and the rest of the Eurozone have shown how complex the blend of EU domestic and foreign policy may become.

Ideally, this will boost growth, make the case for a stronger EU framework, and also inspire a European narrative less inward looking and with a renewed sense of common purpose. The ideas of European cohesion and solidarity are central for this. 

3. The EaP and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)

Many European governments are frequently hobbled by domestic challenges, which is why the CFSP is lacking any real strategic vision.

Within the EU there are competing priorities (Eastern vs. Southern Neighbourhood) as well as competing visions for Europe’s future. Ambitious EaP objectives, for example the integration of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, are in fact only supported by some member states. This will certainly cause further tensions.

Moreover, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen will likely make domestic security a priority of EU policy – to the possible detriment of long-term goals pursued by the EaP. Several member states favour action to stabilise the South (and prevent spillover effects) over EU-involvement in Ukraine.

How to reconcile divergent interests and strategic preferences within the EU? 

The Monnet model, that is, building a common policy one step at a time, has serious limits when it comes to foreign and security policy. A top-to-bottom emphasis on strategic harmonisation is insufficient – and is showing strains in crisis situations such as in Ukraine. The EU has mechanisms to find compromises on foreign policy issues, and haggling between member states contributes to a better understanding of respective interests. However, in a large EU and in times of crises this is insufficient. Also, the institutional development of the CFSP has contributed little to a common strategic culture in Europe.

Still, regardless of how the CFSP will develop, national interests, strategic posturing, and differing political cultures will remain a reality – just think of the divisions caused by the crisis in the Eurozone. The feeling that vital national security interests are at stake will only cause an even greater strategic cacophony and security fragmentation.

One way forward would be a much deeper political integration. Under the present circumstances, however, this seems most unlikely – bar a systemic threat that may push core countries together (the crisis of the Eurozone has failed to provide such an impetus). Hence, a more realistic option is to foster synergies between countries with different interests, thus building a strategic convergence from the bottom up. Here, a priority would be to bridge differences between some Eastern and Southern European countries (the East-South divide) through a strategic dialogue on security and greater diplomatic, security, and military co-operation. A natural starting point would be bilateral or trilateral synergies between countries such as Spain and Poland that have different strategic outlooks, yet are involved in joint projects that are strategically relevant to Europe as a whole (the Energy Union, for example).

This will not result in a short-term strategic convergence, nor in a Strategic Europe, yet, when coupled with measures in other areas, it can get us a few steps closer to that goal.