Is Europe Losing Its East?
From March 27-28, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST) hosted an event in Vienna aimed at discussing EU’s past, current, and future policy towards its Eastern Neighborhood with European experts and their counterparts from the region.
Discussions did not focus exclusively on Eastern Partnership, as this is not and has not been the only instrument the EU had and used in the region. Instead, participants discussed the EU’s general approach and policy to the region, its impacts, and possible changes that would increase its efficiency. The discussions focused on the failures of the EU Eastern Policy, recommendations to combat these failures, and EU-Russia relations.
Participants noted since the breakup of the Soviet Union, EU lacked a vision for its Eastern neighborhood. This led to 24 years of policies reflecting the region as a permanent problem that needs to be contained, rather than a potential that needs to be unlocked. The discussants also said Russia’s first policy further limited the impact of Eastern Neighborhood policies, especially after 2008 when Russia started its zero-sum game in the region. The EU failed at explaining the benefits of the process of integration and the creation of a strong and healthy state. Policies towards Eastern Neighborhood policies have never been tailored enough for each country, but implemented identically across region leading to inconsistent enforcement and outcomes.
The participants called for the EU to become more geopolitical in general, but especially in this region. In addition, the discussion revealed the need for ensuring public support of European integration for countries in the region given Russian-EU relations at the moment. Participants also stressed the importance of counteracting Russian propaganda in countries (including Moldova and Georgia) soon to sign the European Union Association Agreement.
The participants acknowledged that some countries in Europe are not supportive of European integration of Eastern neighborhood countries. European leaders need to address this trend in order to get support for a future Eastern neighborhood policy. Consequently, the EU needs to shift from dealing with governments to dealing with societies in the region. Besides communicating more directly, the EU should revise its strategy and programs to aim at societal changes. Furthermore, the participants decided the EU needs to continue to support democratic development in the countries in the region, yet it must not equal this with support of development of pro-European parties. Eastern neighborhood policies need to be measured against their impact, and constantly adjusted accordingly. The participants decided American involvement in Europe and in the region is needed and sought, but it is time for Europeans to take care of their own security. On the same note, the EU must become an actor in conflicts and push for their solution. Ignoring them as it did for two decades is not an option anymore, according to participants.
The segment of the event which focused on EU-Russia relations was animated, with participants soon divided in two camps: a minority that supported further engagement with Russia, and a majority that supported containment. All participants, however, suggested involvement with Russia needs to continue, and even expand and the EU needs to find ways not only to continue its support of civil society, but to use this to further penetrate into society at large, mirroring the Russian propaganda and its spread. The aim should not be regime change, but the societal understanding on which the EU is based.