Unity and disunity in wider Europe

by Hannes Swoboda

On the initiative of the Austrian French Centre, several Austrian organizations, including the IIP, organized discussions under the title: "Unity and disunity in wider Europe". In a public discussion with special attention to the EU policy in relation to the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries we tried to look at the disunity or rather disunities inside the EU and their effect on external policy. 

Just on the Sunday before our meeting, regional elections in some German federal states were influenced by disunities in Europe, for example on the refugee issue. These divisions are also reflected in disunities inside the German government and the outcome of the elections impacts the role of Chancellor Merkel. And that, in its turn, has consequences for European politics. 

As it was discussed recently at another conference co-organized by the IIP, "intersecting" conflicts are characteristic not only for the Middle East, but they have to be taken into account on the European level too. European developments and policies have increasingly challenged national politics, especially during election periods. On the other hand, national developments, including elections, strongly influence European decisions or, rather, lack of thereof. 

Hence, when we look at the EU policies towards the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership we must recognize that more and more European citizens are not very keen on committing more energy and financial contributions to our neighbors, and even less so are they supportive of further EU enlargements. Any serious EU policy must take into account these domestic trends in member countries without, however, forgetting the necessity of bringing our neighbors closer to the EU. Vision and realism are needed. The following contributions show that it is possible to combine both if we take our citizens but also security interests serious.


Panel discussion summary 

by Maryia Hushcha

 A keynote speeches were given by Thomas Greminger, the Secretary General of the OSCE, and Werner Fasslabend, the President of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy in Vienna.

 The first panelist, Luiza Bialasiewicz from the University of Amsterdam, argued that the European Union has so far failed to create a linkage between its domestic and foreign policies which, among other things, also led to disunity among actors within the Union. The EU Global Strategy was an attempt to remedy that but so far it has remained an ‘aspirational document’. Anti-European actors, on the other hand, have been much more successful in establishing a linkage between local and geopolitics. The traditional EU perception of itself relied on the idea of inclusion and cooperation. By highlighting inequities of the European integration and appealing to ‘losers’ of this process, anti-European actors have created an alternative image of Europe that has also allowed them to question belongingness of the neighborhood countries to the European club and hence their eligibility for EU membership. ‘Losers’ of integration are not only to be understood in political and economic terms, but they are also those who felt excluded on the symbolic level. Memory politics have therefore appealed to many such people in the EU member states, as well as in the Western Balkans and Ukraine. The recent Polish remembrance law serves as an example of that. ‘Historical experience of imperial disintegration can be a useful lesson on what happens when a shared geopolitical imaginary fails – because the dangers will be both domestic as well as international’ – concluded Ms. Bialasiewicz.

Srdan Cvijic from the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels noted that when EU’s enlargement and neighborhood policies were put under one umbrella back in 2010, it set the two respective policy processes on a collision course. While creation of the Eastern Partnership in 2009 may have signified progress in EU policy towards Eastern Europe, for the Western Balkans the visa liberalization process of 2009 and subsequent Croatia’s membership in the EU were not positive signs. These developments put an end to the hopes for a speedy accession process for the whole region. The global economic crisis and the European political crisis that had been triggered by the 2015 refugee influx further raised the stakes of enlargement for European decision makers. Currently, it seems, that the EU’s approach to the neighborhood is shifting from a democratic transformation-driven policy towards a pragmatic and interest based one. It is not clear how the EU’s nature and values fit with this approach.

Christophe Hillion from the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies offered an account of unities and disunities on the European political scene and what they mean for EU neighbors. Paradoxically, the source of unity in the EU has come from Brexit. Firstly, the UK as the biggest beneficiary of legal derogations in the EU, is now leaving the Union which means that in future any opt-outs for other member states will be less likely. Also, the way the EU 27 has handled Brexit is another manifestation of unity among the remaining member states. Finally, as a result of Brexit, deeper integration in some policy areas has become possible. For example, the Permanent Structured Cooperation among the EU members in the defense field has been recently established. For EU neighbors and especially the candidate states, this unity may translate into stricter requirements for European integration and membership. At the same time, there are many disunities within the EU. While some of them are positive, such as differentiation principle that allows for deeper integration among the willing member states, many disunities have a negative effect on the EU as a whole. The most concerning one is the increasingly divergent views on the fundamentals of the EU, most importantly its values. Brexit also means diversification of EU neighbors which now will include not only aspiring EU candidates, candidate states, and non-members, but also ex-members. The EU will need to account for this diversity and continue to work towards establishing good neighborly relations across Europe as it is obliged to do under the Treaty of Lisbon. This inevitably must involve reestablishing a consensus around values within the EU as well as in the broader European region.

Ferdinando Nelli Feroci from Instituto Affari Internazionali in Romeargued that the EU was in the middle of a deep existential crisis which can also serve as an explanation for the Eastern Partnership and enlargement fatigue. The economic crisis has demonstrated the inadequacies of financial governance in the EU which still need to be remedied. Also, the refugee crisis exposed the lack of solidarity among the EU member states who failed to support those countries most affected by the influx of refugees. Brexit and the openly anti-European outlook of the current US president further added to this deepening crisis in the EU. 

What it means for the Western Balkan countries is that while the EU is interested in their stability, as well as economic and democratic development, having made a commitment to pursue full integration of those states in the Union, the integration process will be slow. In case of the Eastern Partnership countries there has been no such commitment. And while the EU is interested in stability and development there too, achieving it will be much more difficult without a membership perspective. One also needs to take into account Russia’s relations with the EaP countries, and in this respect the EU has made some mistakes.  

In the question and answer session of the discussion the following issues were addressed: EU’s image as a ‘rule-based’ vs. ‘ideal’ power; step by step approach towards the ENP; identity and the EU integration; role of the youth in the integration process and other. 

The video of the panel discussion can be found below.


Organised by, in cooperation with and with the support of 

Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe (CFA), Vienna;
French Institute for International Relations (Ifri), Paris;
Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), Vienna;Competence Center for Black Sea Region Studies (CCBRS), University of Applied Sciences, BFI Vienna;
International Institute for Peace (IIP), Vienna; Karl-Renner-Institut (RI), Vienna;
Austrian National Defense Academy (LVAk), Vienna; Diplomatische Akademie Wien (DAk), Vienna; Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union;
Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs (BMEIA), Vienna; Central European Initiative, Trieste (CEI);
Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE), Berlin/Nice;
Minsk Dialogue Track-2 Initiative (MD), Minsk;
Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Rome;
German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin;
Austrian Institute for International Politics (OIIP), Vienna;
University of Vienna – Research Center for Eurasian Studies (EURAS), Vienna; Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung Regional Office for Cooperation and Peace in Europe, Vienna.