Europe caught in the ring of fire

When European Union expansion commenced in 2004, welcoming Central and Eastern European states alongside Malta and Cyprus to the club of democratic nations, EU institutions declared their aim to surround the EU with friendly states.

The goal of the new European Neighbourhood Policy was said to be expanding economic and social ties with 16 partner states to the east and south of the EU, while also hoping to instil Western democratic values and peaceful coexistence.

Such a neighbourhood policy fit well with Lithuania’s own foreign policy priorities. Having achieved its strategic goals of joining the European Union and NATO, which reinforced reforms that had been underway since 1990, Lithuania sought to assist other neighbours of the EU in the East in walking the same path.

Such policies soon met with obstructions, however. Reforms were sluggish or absent in the countries of Eastern and Southern neighbourhood. Despite everyone’s great expectations for Ukraine and Georgia after their Orange and Rose revolutions, several years later reforms slowed down due to domestic in-fighting, interest groups and the rising influence of Russia, a party not one bit interested in reform in those countries.

The Arab Spring of 2011 that swept the region in a wave of optimism has also failed to elicit regime changes and democratization expected from them. The only exception is Tunisia, but most countries in the region, like Egypt, merely underwent a change of rulers, not the political regime, while others descended into armed conflicts, one of which, in Syria, still rages destabilising the entire region.

Even though the Euromaidan movement in Kiev displayed not only the will of the Ukrainian people to change their corrupt political system, but also the appeal of the EU, the unfortunate military aggression from Russian and resistance from interest groups within Ukraine quickly curbed the potential for reform.

In 2014, most of the EU Eastern and Southern neighbours found themselves embroiled in ongoing or frozen military conflicts and not democratic and economic reforms. It is not just the European Union’s objective of establishing a peaceful neighbourhood platform for friendly neighbours that has met failure. The entire EU neighbourhood failed to adhere to the vision it presented a decade ago.

At the time The Economist used the words of Johnny Cash to vividly describe the situation – instead of being surrounded by friends the EU found itself in a ring of fire. Not only did the EU overestimate its capacity to encourage reforms in partner states, especially given the absence of any concrete membership perspectives, but also failed to take into account geopolitical calculations and concern among the elites elites in other powers such as Russia which sees the spread of democratic reform as a direct existential threat.

The refugee crisis and the proliferation of terrorist attacks of the past few years, such as those in France and Belgium, show that this ring of fire has become something more than just a problem of the EU’s neighbourhood policy, it has an effect on the daily lives of EU citizens.

The recent attempt of a military coup in Turkey is another sign of this threatening tendency for the EU and the West in general. Regardless of the motivations of those behind the coup, it is likely that the reaction of the Turkish government could easily overstep the boundaries of law and escalate into a purge of opposition. Statements of the Turkish president that the situation will be used as an opportunity to completely cleanse the military from disloyal functionaries show that such a scenario is very real. If such a cleansing is not limited to the trials of disloyal military staff, spreading to the other branches of public service and other institutions through a process that does not adhere to the law, a the possibility of authoritarianism in Turkey becomes very real, not to mention more radical reactions from forces opposed to the current government which may lead to further unrest.

Looking at an even more uneasy neighbourhood with Turkey, it is clear that there will be many concerns for EU and US leaders, especially given their current active cooperation with Turkey in an attempt to manage the tide of refugees going to Europe and in combating terrorism in the Middle East.

It is not only the loss of human life and undemocratic coups that should concern the West, with Lithuania included. Intensifying military conflicts in its neighbourhood and the need to manage the flows of people created by such conflicts has pushed the EU closer to authoritarian neighbours in the South and to Russia.

The perceptions of EU institutions and member states about the potential for peaceful reform and the spread of Western values to neighbouring countries are changing. It has been said in informal meetings among EU institutions representatives that the EU must stop preaching to others, stop ignoring reality and concentrate on dealing with the problems caused by conflicts.

This essentially means a return to the policies of two or more decades ago of cooperating with authoritarian regimes in the South, only now there is the additional factor of Russia’s activism in the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighbourhood. This also means less support for reformers in neighbouring states and the focus on internal EU issues, particularly security.

Therefore the EU will feel ever more acutely the dilemma of how to balance its respect for democratic freedoms and human rights, especially when nurturing ties with the societies of neighbouring countries where some people support these values, and cooperation with their authoritarian or dictatorially inclined leaderships in order to manage common concerns, like migration, the threat of terrorism, the use of military power in disputes.

It is clear that there is no avoiding cooperation with authoritarian regimes, but reconciling it with Western values and maintaining their appeal will require strategic insight. The dilemma will be greatly exacerbated by the United States‘ fading focus on the Middle East and the expectation that NATO’s European members should contribute more to solving issues in their region.

The allocation of resources to conflict resolution and recovery in the neighbourhood are made more difficult by economic and social issues, not to forget the Brexit referendum, the rise of populism in Europe and the upcoming US presidential election.

Two things are particularly important for Lithuania in this regard. First, to be able to choose on which issues and by what means to support EU and NATO cooperation with Russia when problems relevant to the entirety of Western society are concerned, while also preventing it from becoming a pretext for dividing up spheres of influence in Eastern neighbourhood or granting Russia even more veto power in certain internal matters of NATO member states. Decisions endorsed at the NATO summit in Warsaw give hope that this is possible.

But that is conditioned on Lithuania’s ability to contribute to solving issues in the EU’s Southern neighbourhood not just by words, but also by actions. Especially since most Lithuanians only become interested in them when they get stuck at Istanbul Airport during a coup.

It is also important to not just be happy that “Lithuania got all it expected” in Warsaw, but also to raise the awareness among politicians and citizens alike that it is important for them to contribute to solving problems in their own country and in others.


Professor Ramūnas Vilpišauskas is the director of Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science

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