The EU’s strategic sovereignty starts in Eastern Europe

The real test of the EU’s power and its strategic sovereignty will be in how it deals with external problems – not least those in its neighbourhood.

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As the European Union prepares to hold a summit with Eastern Partnership states in June (covid-19 allowing), the agenda of that meeting still looks like a throwback to the pre-geopolitical good old days when Russia was not invading its neighbours, China was a “responsible stakeholder” meekly “biding its time”, and the United States was inclusive, multilateralist, and ready to cover for EU inaction in domains such as security and defence. None of these conditions holds true today. And this demands that the EU significantly scale up its policies in its neighbourhood.

The EU is largely irrelevant to the toughest challenges in its southern neighbourhood: Syria, Libya, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and broader regional dynamics. The EU is less influential on Turkey than it has been in decades. The state of the EU’s influence and relevance is not as weak in Eastern Europe as it is in the south, but the prospects don’t look good. And this is not because of the US, China, or Russia, but because of the EU’s choice to avoid dealing with hard security matters and concentrate on its socio-economic goals.

In the last decade, the EU has invested billions in aid and loans in its neighbourhood. It hosted dozens of summits, beefed up its diplomatic presence, agreed on free-trade areas, helped improve energy security, and liberalised travel and visa-regimes in its eastern neighbourhood. The bloc’s achievements are many. But few of them are irreversible. They can all be foiled by the erosion of the security situation. The EU’s neighbours are under a constant security assault: from propaganda, dirty political party finance from abroad, and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure to intelligence subversion, and, as Ukraine proved, open military aggression.

In the past, the EU mostly left it to Washington to strengthen the resilience of eastern neighbourhood states in matters of security and defence. The US took the lead in helping states with defence assistance and reforms, intelligence cooperation, and cybersecurity. Because the US was virtually the only security provider on matters of state survival for countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, Washington gained “premium” leverage there. The EU’s financial assistance could not always buy the same degree of influence. Nonetheless, the US and the EU worked together to insist on critical reforms.

If Europe is indeed ready and willing to become more geopolitical and strategically autonomous, it is time to show this in its Eastern Partnership policy

But this arrangement is now under threat. The way Ukraine that became enmeshed in US President Donald Trump’s failed impeachment left deep scars on the political landscapes of both Eastern Europe and Washington. The mistrust between Trump and most senior US officials who are supposed to implement policies on Eastern Europe undermines American influence and credibility in the region.

One might think that, in these circumstances, the EU would massively scale up its Eastern Partnership policy. But that is far from certain. Even though EU institutions have the ambitions and the desire to do so to a significant degree, there is a strong current among some member states to keep the EU as un-geopolitical as possible in Eastern Europe. In recent months, some member states tried to completely deprive the conversation on the Eastern Partnership of any security ambition. There was even an attempt to relegate the Eastern Partnership to matters of the environment, the fight against inequality, and boosts to youth exchanges.

A rather large and otherwise ambitious member state even argued that the Eastern Partnership should avoid dealing with cybersecurity – let alone harder security matters – lest this irritates Russia. Such positioning is not unlike Trump’s isolationist disengagement.

If Europe is indeed ready and willing to become more geopolitical and strategically autonomous, it is time to show this in its Eastern Partnership policy. One way to do so is to launch an Eastern Partnership Security Compact: an initiative bringing EU funds and institutions together with the capabilities of member states that are willing to boost security cooperation with the bloc’s neighbours. Some EU member states have already established some modest cooperation initiatives in security and defence. But these are fragmented, poorly coordinated, and not very resourceful.

The idea is to merge and scale up current forms of cooperation. Such a compact would seek to boost both assistance and cooperation on intelligence coordination, security sector support, cybersecurity, and military affairs.

This could involve a “foreign military sales programme” akin to that of the US, under which partners could purchase select European military equipment using special loans. It is necessary to reshape military training and education, as well as comprehensive national security planning. On intelligence and cyber, capacity-building programmes and closer cooperation to quickly identify clandestine threats and subversive structures are paramount.

Such a package would also help the EU foster and support reforms within the cyber, security, intelligence, and defence sectors, particularly in relation to public accountability, the rule of law, and, most importantly, the fight against corruption.

It is time for the EU to stop being afraid of its own shadow on security matters. Without dealing with such sensitive (and un-Brussels-like) issues, the EU’s influence, effectiveness, and strategic sovereignty ambitions will always hit a glass ceiling. It is time for the EU to start investing in security partnerships with its neighbours. Such partnerships should not be linked to the complex issue of EU and NATO enlargement. The point is to strengthen EU allies’ capabilities and start turning the bloc into a full-spectrum power in its own neighbourhood. If it fails to do so, the EU risks becoming increasingly irrelevant – as it has in the southern Mediterranean in the last decade.

This article first appeared in Euractiv.

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


Senior Policy Fellow
Distinguished policy fellow

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