What could happen to the European Union’s Eastern neighbourhood in the decade to come? Will it be abandoned and forgotten if Europe strikes a new deal with Russia, dividing up the spheres of influence? Or could the societies of the six post-Soviet Eastern Partnership states awaken and bring forth radical political and economic reform with the help of the EU?
In May 2019 the Eastern Partnership, the European Union’s most ambitious neighbourhood policy project, celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Several months later, Visegrad Insight assembled a team of experts from the six EaP countries who met in Warsaw, Tbilisi and Prague to develop Eastern European Futures, four Eastern Partnership scenarios for the next decade.
The EaP story started when the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargements in 2004 and 2007 shifted the borders of the European project to the East creating a new zone of “shared neighbourhood” between the Union and Russia. These post-Soviet countries presented the EU with both opportunities and challenges.
While they could not be offered membership at that point, nevertheless, the EU wanted to promote its model which was based on good governance, rule of law, economic prosperity and multilateralism, that is, on cooperation through regional institutions.
For the EU this was not only about the possible economic gains but also about its own security. The logic of ‘stabilisation through association’ meant that by integrating its neighbourhood the EU would create a safe and predictable environment on its borders.
For peripheral EU members like Poland or Slovakia who, owing to their geographic situation, are more exposed to the consequences of instability, building this ‘ring of friends’ was particularly important. Overall, the idea of addressing security risks through regional integration was part of the broader logic of the liberal international order on which the EU itself was built from the start.
Interpreted as a threat
Following a joint initiative from Sweden and Poland, the Eastern Partnership was officially launched in 2009, including six post-Soviet countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The framework included countries that were rather different in terms of their political systems, economies, as well as their relations with Russia.
Moscow chose to interpret the EaP as a threat to its hegemonic ambitions in what it called its ‘near-abroad’, its exclusive sphere of influence. It was never keen on the idea of a shared neighbourhood. The clash between the EaP and Russia’s own Eurasian Union project triggered the 2014 Ukraine crisis, resulting in one more frozen conflict at the EU’s doorstep.
The EU is often called a success story as a ‘peace project’ which ended wars in Europe. But its overall capacity to stabilise the neighbourhood using its liberal instruments has proven to be limited. In Ukraine, the Association agreement was meant to be a win-win situation for everyone, Russia included, but Western policymakers obviously underestimated the Russian zero-sum game mentality and propensity for aggression.
And in the south, the consequences of the Arab spring and the migration crisis often put the EU at the mercy of ‘illiberal’ leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived the EU member states had to shut their borders as an emergency measure. Some IR scholars working in the realist tradition were quick to suggest that this was proof of what they had been long arguing. Cosmopolitan liberal globalism with its free movement of people is an illusion.
Nation-states and their selfishly understood interests remain the cornerstone of the world we live in. This is also what right-wing populist politicians have been screaming all along: go back to the nation!
A false dilemma
In the realist world of selfish nation-states, liberal projects like the EaP obviously make much less sense. But the either/or dilemma between liberalism and realism may be a false one. As the authors of Eastern European Futures report suggest in their moderately optimistic scenario, the EaP countries may still achieve limited progress in the next ten years, even if they do not solve all of their major problems (poverty, corruption or frozen conflicts), nor get a clear EU membership perspective.
The resilience of the liberal model is stronger than it may seem in the dramatic times of crises. The appeal of liberal democracy and liberal international relations survived the turbulent 20th century and remains strong also in the 21st century.
In one of the darker futures that the experts saw in their crystal ball an EU, weakened by multiple crises, abandons the EaP in favour of a closer relationship with Russia. In Western European countries like Germany and France, the ‘Russia first’ approach was a strong temptation for policymakers even in better times. Realpolitik does make things simpler in the short-term perspective.
What the Central European EU member states should remember with respect to this scenario is that once realpolitik becomes the name of the game, it may be very tempting to take it one step further.
The Visegrad Four may present themselves as ‘Central’ Europeans and EU members which are therefore distinct from the EaP countries.
However, on the mental map of national populists in Western Europe they may very quickly end up as part of the generalised ‘East’ whose interests can easily be sacrificed for the sake of doing good business with Moscow.
In the end, the EU’s liberal approach to international relations is what protects small states from realist great power politics – and the EaP stands as one of the symbols of that approach.