Go east, Sweden

The Swedish presidency should tour the EU’s eastern periphery to ensure the region does not feel forgotten

This piece first appeared in European Voice.

After the war in Georgia at the height of last summer, the cutting-off of gas to Ukraine in the new year and the post-election violence in Moldova at Easter, the EU should be getting used to crises in eastern Europe disrupting its holiday schedules.

The pattern is likely to continue this summer. In fact, there is a crush of candidates for ‘this year’s crisis’. One – snap elections in Moldova – passed off on Wednesday (29 July) without the allegations of fraud or unrest that accompanied parliamentary elections in April. Ukraine is struggling to pay its monthly gas bills. And there is always the potential ‘action replay’ of conflict between Russia and Georgia.

But even if there is no crisis this summer, the eastern neighbourhood will force its way onto the agenda for Sweden, current holder of the EU’s presidency. The post-Soviet states along the EU’s border are already exporting many of their problems into the Schengen zone – problems produced by unstable governments, weak statehood and tottering economies.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership is intended to address some of the problems in six of those small, fragile states. But most heads of large EU member states decided not even to attend its launch in May. Fresh momentum is needed. As an original co-sponsor of the Eastern Partnership (along with Poland), this is one area where Sweden has a special role, as well as an interest.

Listening tour

One way Sweden can provide momentum is simply to do something it did back in 2001, when it last held the presidency: to go on a ‘listening tour’ around the neighbourhood. Sweden has already – in early July – led a ‘troika’ trip to the south Caucasus, with the European Commission and a Spanish diplomat, representing the next EU presidency.

The purpose of a bigger tour would be both general – to generate a sense of ‘joint ownership’ of the Partnership – and specific: to involve them in the debate about a new European security architecture. Since Russia started the debate in June 2008, discussions have been conducted over the heads of the EU’s ‘eastern partners’. This is misguided. After all, at the end of the day, many (if not most) of the sensitive issues in EU-Russia security relations are in the eastern neighbourhood.

While the US and Russia talk about a ‘reset’ button for their relationship and the EU tries to elbow itself into the debate, the neighbourhood states themselves are too busy with their crises to think strategically.

They need to be involved in the discussion about their security. The task of getting them to address big-picture, long-term issues should fall to the EU.

The first task is to listen. But that should be done not just on a troika tour, but by a constant process of engagement with the states with the most pressing problems and where the EU is most likely to have a constructive influence. Currently, those are Moldova and Ukraine.

In Moldova, it is unlikely that these elections will end the long-standing political deadlock. Meanwhile, the economy is nose-diving as remittances, on which the economy depends, are collapsing. The EU should establish a rule-of-law mission to Moldova to support reform of the law-enforcement agencies. Making progress towards visa liberalisation will also make fewer Moldovans opt for Romanian passports.

As for Ukraine, it needs another mission of the type that saved the Orange Revolution in 2004, but this time it should be linked to Ukraine’s call for emergency economic assistance for the national budget, troubled banks and Ukraine’s gas bill. A ‘coalition of the willing’ could help Ukraine through to presidential elections in January. But Ukraine itself needs to show it is willing to unblock the political log-jam. There should be no repeat of the sleight of hand evident in June, when a backstage agreement to fix the constitution and postpone elections was only narrowly averted.

It is a big ask for the EU to look beyond its borders when it has so many dilemmas at home – but better for it to look now than when countries on its periphery collapse.


Andrew Wilson and Nicu Popescu are policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations. They co-authored a recent report on “The Limits of Enlargement-lite: European and Russian Power in the Troubled Neighbourhood”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Wider Europe programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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