The EU’s Eastern neighbourhood: what do you do when your neighbours turn against you?

Born and raised in Romania, Sebastian Baciu is a second-year International Relations student whose main interests lie in the field of European Affairs, cultural diplomacy and environmental issues. He enjoys writing, photography and volunteering.

The EU’s place in the world is being challenged on all fronts. The recent migrant crisis orchestrated by Belarus at Poland’s borders is a clear sign of an increasingly tense regional context, which the EU, in its current configuration, simply cannot face on its own. To overcome its strategic vulnerability, the EU needs a strong basis at home before exporting its influence abroad. Otherwise, it risks losing the very things it values the most: security and stability.

As migrants from war-torn regions have been used by Belarus’ ruthless regime, backed by the Kremlin, as pawns in the wider geopolitical game between the East and the West, Commission President von der Leyen considers the move to be a “hybrid attack” on the EU’s neighbours. The border crisis could easily degenerate into a new military conflict that the bloc is not prepared to face alone. In response, the EU is mulling over the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on Belarusian entities involved in the trafficking of vulnerable people. Yet when you’re faced with a military power like Russia, which shows no signs of abating its aggressiveness towards the West, and when the United States is no longer there to constantly provide for your security, you’re faced with a problem that in the long-term requires more than retaliatory sanctions. Apart from highlighting Europe’s vulnerability in the domain of security and defence, the current crisis brings to light the EU’s failure to transform the neighbourhood and bring about positive change.

With the growing influence of Russia and China in Eastern Europe, the special relationship that the EU has sought to create with neighbouring countries seems to have vanished into thin air. The EU’s empty promises of ever-closer cooperation are now easily replaced by deals with authoritarian regimes that offer economic benefits without conditioning them on questions of democracy and human rights. This is clearly appealing for governments unwilling to fulfil the EU’s demands for extensive reforms in exchange for funding. Countries in the post-Soviet space such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia have distanced themselves further away from the EU, and this is partly a consequence of the bloc’s half-hearted commitment to the region. Undoubtedly, the EU is losing its appeal. And so is liberal democracy more generally. The recent deal Ukraine signed with China to join the Belt and Road Initiative is a case in point. The agreement received little attention from EU leaders, but it signals a further blow to the Union’s influence in the region, with President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, stating that his country might become a “bridge to Europe” for Chinese investments. Ukraine has frequently expressed intent to join the bloc, yet recent Chinese inroads in the country show that the EU is no longer the only option. More worryingly still, China’s growing presence in the Eastern neighbourhood will only exacerbate the more immediate threat posed by Russia, with the two powers forming an anti-liberal axis diametrically opposed to the EU’s values. This is the outcome of the Union’s failure to reduce feelings of exclusion in Eastern European countries, which are now turning to other development models out of a lack of better options.

While the Union has been trying to impose its vision beyond its borders in an effort to win over new partners, internal divergences and bickering between member states have resulted in a lack of credibility. Russia and Belarus have already suggested that the EU is not living up to its humanitarian values, failing to allow immigrants to cross the Polish border. Clashing interests between member states are thus cunningly exploited by Russia and China, undermining the EU’s transformative power and leverage in neighbouring states. There is no doubt that the recent build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border has been emboldened by a perceived weakness of the West as tensions grow between the Kremlin and the EU over migrants and energy supplies. The EU’s strategic vulnerability is evident in Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko’s threat to choke off  Europe’s natural gas, which could lead to massive spikes in energy prices: “And what if we cut off [the transit of] natural gas to them? So I would recommend that the leadership of Poland, Lithuanian and other brainless people to think before they speak,” said Lukashenko in an emergency government meeting. He knows that Europe is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, which keep the EU hamstrung in its ability to take decisive action. Unless the EU asserts itself as a power that can stand up to the Kremlin’s weaponisation of energy exports, it will struggle to maintain its commitment to prosperity, stability and security in the region. In an era of hybrid threats, what the EU needs is a more robust military strategy and, more saliently, the political will to implement it. Apart from enhancing the EU’s status abroad, this would help neighbouring countries perceive the bloc not as a divided entity but as a capable actor that can serve as a guardian of regional security in the context of Russian and Chinese intrusions.

There are signs that the EU is making tentative progress towards a common strategic vision for security and defence in the upcoming years, as a blueprint of the so-called Strategic Compass suggests. The draft specifically emphasises the need for stronger crisis management capabilities, referring to Russia and China as major threats to European security, since “actions in our common neighbourhood and in other theatres contradict the EU’s vision of the world and its interests.” The success of the new military proposal, however, hinges on strong unity among the member states.

Perhaps the recent security crisis on the EU’s border is a reminder that in a world dominated by hard power, soft power can only do so much. Current debates on enhancing the EU’s military instruments may signal that Europe has reached a foregone conclusion: if you’re not at the table, you are on the menu. The EU can and must do better than this.

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