Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Daniel FiottResearcher at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and senior editor of European Geostrategy

The EU is losing, but has not yet completely lost, its neighbors.

Years of economic prosperity in Europe have led many to extol the EU’s civilian-soft-normative-market power as a way of ensuring stability in its periphery. This is a polite fiction that warms the hearts of many Europeans, but is completely unconnected to the realities on the ground.

As the EU is not holding out the prospect of membership for peripheral countries, a dose of realism is required: Will an association agreement seriously be enough for those currently protesting in Kiev? How has the prospect of increased EU market access impacted developments in Egypt? If it comes to it, can the member states actually sell closer integration with North Africa and Eastern Europe to their citizens in the present political climate?

The crises stretching from the Sahel to the Levant, and now extending to Ukraine, bear the hallmarks of complex domestic and regional geopolitical power plays that the EU has failed to understand in a timely fashion. As long as the EU remains reactive to such power plays, then change will come to these regions—but in a way that fails to reflect European interests.


Jana KobzovaAssociate policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

No, for the simple reason that the EU never “had” its Eastern or Southern neighborhoods. Nor was it in a particularly strong position to steer developments in the regions.

To be influential in its neighborhoods, the EU would need the resources and the political will to use its soft and hard power. The EU lacks both: although it is more interconnected with its neighbors than ever before, the EU has not turned its presence into influence. Its assistance to the periphery has risen, but remains unfocused. In some countries, the EU aims to build democracy; in others, it indirectly props up undemocratic regimes. The overall impression is that the EU prefers to throw money at problems, rather than stick to a long-term strategy.

Still, the EU is important for its neighbors—as a trade partner for some and as an inspiration for others. Yet the EU needs to be more modest and realistic about its power: because the neighbors do not see EU membership as their top objective, they have fewer reasons to follow Brussels’s recommendations.

So the EU should use its limited powers more selectively, concentrating on those countries that are willing to align themselves with EU standards. In countries with other priorities, the EU should focus on mitigating the negative impact of external influences. That is a more limited strategy than what the EU officially aspires to, but it is more realistic and therefore more reliable.


Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Both dimensions of the European Neighborhood Policy are in trouble.

In the East, the EU is slipping into a geopolitical competition for which it is badly prepared. While EU member states are divided on the desirability of integrating Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows exactly what he wants. Ukraine’s and Armenia’s recent decisions not to sign an association agreement with the EU initially looked like a triumph for Moscow’s hardball approach, but the reactions on the streets of Kiev have shown that the EU’s soft power should not be underestimated. The future orientation of Eastern Europe is likely to go through twists and turns for years. The EU needs to continue to engage these countries, but it also needs to try harder to persuade Russia to finally end its zero-sum approach to the region.

In the South, the situation is worse. The tremendous dynamics of political change, the EU’s limited and insufficiently coherent engagement, and the emergence of other actors threaten to reduce the neighborhood policy to irrelevance. The majority of countries are drifting away from the EU rather than coming closer. As the EU has vital interests in the South, the European Neighborhood Policy requires a major rethink. This should be a top priority for the EU’s next foreign policy high representative.


Andrew MichtaProfessor of international studies at Rhodes College and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis

The EU is in very real danger of losing at least one of its neighborhoods.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to halt negotiations with the EU on an association agreement is a landmark event, regardless of how the unfolding crisis in Ukraine will ultimately end. In the broader context of Russia’s determined policy and the EU’s wavering priorities, even if the pro-EU opposition in Ukraine manages to force the government’s hand to reopen the talks, the larger trend is now toward the progressive reassertion of Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

As pressure in the region continues to build, the Baltic and Central European countries will be the most immediately affected. They are fast becoming frontier states, as the divide following Ukraine’s shift could eventually form a new fault line along Europe’s periphery.

If unchecked by the EU, Russia’s intention to play an increased role in Ukraine is altering the balance in Central Europe, raising the prospect of even more pressure from Moscow. If Russia ultimately succeeds in bringing Ukraine fully back into its orbit—and it has shown repeatedly it is determined to do just that—geopolitical dilemmas will reemerge that not so long ago many observers dismissed as passé.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

The EU hasn’t lost its neighborhoods yet—but it may be in danger of doing so.

Europe is risk-averse, eager for a world where endless negotiations, committees, quiet bureaucrats, and a bunch of detailed rules solve every problem. The EU’s leaders are chosen to satisfy many different countries, cultures, and interests. Any flamboyant politician, any bold vision, any promising but risky plan is eschewed in favor of the gray, toothless apparatchik, the stop-and-go white paper, the middle-of-the-road vanilla vision. Let’s face it: Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle would have never been accepted as leaders in today’s EU. Too much charisma, not enough patience for committees.

Foreign policy crises—to the EU’s East or South, or elsewhere—are difficult to manage with such a risk-averse management style. It is too easy for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stir up panic in Ukraine and corner the EU, just like he stirred up panic in Syria and cornered U.S. President Barack Obama.

In recent weeks, there has been a deluge of moving memoirs of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, marking fifty years since his assassination. His performance during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was universally praised, after a shaky start with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vienna summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Observers praise JFK because they know how well his chosen course of action played out. They forget how risky, bold, and crazy it was for many contemporaries.

Would the EU declare a Cuban blockade? No. It would send diplomats and talk, talk, talk . . .


Constanze StelzenmüllerSenior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

An observer could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion—at first and even at second glance.

In North Africa and the Middle East, it certainly looks as though the EU has very little traction, either political or economic. Indeed, the EU appears to be on the defensive, with many of its member states raising their drawbridges against migrants and refugees fleeing from the region’s many conflict zones. There is one notable exception: the role of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy high representative, in brokering an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. With (a lot of) luck, this deal could become a game changer, not just for Iran, but for its neighbors, too.

In the East, things looked equally dire until quite recently. Moldova and Georgia have made a first step in the EU’s direction. But Belarus remains firmly in the grip of President Alexander Lukashenko, and Armenia chose Russia over the EU. Then, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych did the same thing. But Ukrainians are making it clear they disagree—unmoved by Russian cash and threats, or by their own regime’s police brutality. They want to be Europeans. Perhaps they see more in the EU than the EU’s own citizens?