Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 04, 2023

Central and Eastern Europe have activated the geopolitical dimension of the EU and showcased their importance in shaping the EU’s future

Eastern promise: The power shifts in EU politics

This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2023.


The world is at one of the most important geopolitical junctures since 1945. Russia, a nuclear-armed superpower, opened full-scale war against a European neighbour. This war can be perceived in the context of colonial imperialism, where a former master is attempting to deny the right of statehood to a nation which it considers to be just a province of its own. This is a challenge to the United Nations system and the whole multilateral framework. Whether the international community is able to reassert the rules-based order will be a serious test for global institutions.

< style="color: #0069a6;">The inner dynamics of the EU quietly changed—where, in the past, the Franco-German motor sufficed to get things moving in Brussels, now, a new constellation of actors came to the fore.

In the last 12 months, the European Union (EU) has broken a litany of its own taboos and made several decisive steps towards political union. The inner dynamics of the EU quietly changed—where, in the past, the Franco-German motor sufficed to get things moving in Brussels, now, a new constellation of actors came to the fore. This is the time of Central and Eastern Europeans. “We told you so” Let us reflect on the years preceding the invasion of Ukraine. It is often forgotten that there were actors who had had a good reading of the situation before February 2022—Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states. It was the likes of Estonia, Poland, and Slovakia who were most vocal with the 2008 Georgian War and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It took the rest of Europe several more years and another war to realise the threat coming from the Russian Bear. the European Parliament demanded the bringing of multiple resolutions. Who were leading the charge in this endeavour? It was mostly Slovak, Lithuanian, Czech, and Polish Members of the European Parliament, who have all had experiences with Russian suppression. Yet, their advice was not heeded at the time. The same inertia extended to the energy sector. While Germany was moving ahead with the Nord Stream II pipeline, Lithuania was already working on energy independence. The small Baltic state had experienced the potential weaponisation of energy and what the Kremlin can do when they exploit their market dominance. After Moscow attempted to use gas prices to keep Lithuania in check, based on its dependence, the country ordered the construction of a floating LNG terminal. This terminal allowed Lithuania to diversify its energy imports, consequently forcing Gazprom to swiftly drop prices by a fifth. Poland, another country suspect of Russian intention, was also among the strongest advocates against the new Nord Stream pipeline.

< style="color: #0069a6;">For a prolonged period, Russians have seen Europe as politically weak, divided, and not ready to agree on any decisive steps, actions, or sanctions that would economically hurt Europeans as well.

< style="color: #163449;">Centre moving to the East

When the war broke out on 24 February 2022, the general expectation of the international community was that Ukraine would only stand for a few days. Many expected that Europe’s reaction would be strong in words but—as many times in the past—slow, non-decisive, and harmless in actions. For a prolonged period, Russians have seen Europe as politically weak, divided, and not ready to agree on any decisive steps, actions, or sanctions that would economically hurt Europeans as well. The Russian calculation was that the geopolitical timing was just ideal to wage war. The sum of this calculation was based on the post-Merkel era, with a weakened Franco-German motor, a new German chancellor, a United States president who prefers dialogue over conflict, and a wounded British nation who are still coping with the fallout of Brexit. What Russians did not count on was the decisive leadership of—otherwise fragmented—Central and Eastern Europeans. It is arguably the first time in the history of a unified Europe that CEE nations have been purposefully shaping the response of the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which has been showcased in a variety of areas. First, in the early wake of the war, Russians warned the West that any weapons shipment to Ukraine would be deemed an escalation. Despite this threat, CEE countries showed no hesitation and were the first to hand over weapons and ammunition amidst the ambiguous impact of this action on NATO. “New Europe,” under the leadership of Poland, has been at the forefront of efforts to push for sending Patriot air defence systems and main battle tanks to Ukraine. Similarly, Slovakia has donated air defence systems, self-propelled artillery pieces, and Soviet-era tanks to help Kyiv’s war effort. Central Europeans took a geopolitical gamble and won, receiving diplomatic praise and eventual support from NATO allies. These acts contributed to the breaking of conventional taboo, with France, Germany, and the rest of “Old Europe” joining afterwards. It has consequently become standard NATO and EU policy to provide arms, which has only grown in quality and scale.

< style="color: #0069a6;">It was Slovak, Czech, and Polish leaders who travelled to Kyiv early into the conflict to show support to the embattled Ukrainian society and leadership.

Second, another taboo that was crossed thanks to Central and Eastern European leadership was granting Ukraine EU candidacy status. Initially considered as utopian to grant this status to a country at war, this position changed under the pressure of CEE countries, with Ukraine officially starting negotiations to join the EU. Third, it was Slovak, Czech, and Polish leaders who travelled to Kyiv early into the conflict to show support to the embattled Ukrainian society and leadership. Originally seen as an “irresponsible” political move by many Western European partners, it has now become a common diplomatic Western practice. Shortly afterwards, almost every European head of government and state travelled to Kyiv under huge security risks to show their support. Fourth, when Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine, it caused the flight of millions of Ukrainians seeking safety; the Visegrad countries (V4) were the first to lend a shoulder and provide them with temporary home or passage to other EU countries. CEE countries won praise and admiration across Europe for showing exemplary compassion. It was this pressure that convinced fellow Europeans to open their doors and accept Ukrainians as refugees and workers. It is noted that, in total, eight million refugees fled Ukraine (majority passing through Central and Eastern Europe, finding their first shelters in Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and the Baltic States). Furthermore, the EU, in coordination with other Western allies, imposed a number of unprecedented restrictive measures against Russia, including cutting Russian banks from SWIFT, freezing Russian assets, and imposing powerful sanctions and an embargo on Russian oil and gas. The EU also made the smart decision to wain itself off of Russian hydrocarbons, regardless of the economic and political pain this shift might bring. Finally, after so many years of empty talk, the idea of a fruitful cooperation between NATO and the EU did materialise, in response to a genuine need to coordinate with Biden’s America and non-EU European members such as Great Britain or Norway. The EU is in real tandem with NATO these days. This strategic shift started in Central and Eastern Europe, and it soon spread across the continent. Unprecedented decisions were taken because of the proper leadership that was demonstrated by CEE governments and societies.

< style="color: #163449;">What will come next?

The one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine leads us to several important conclusions for the future. Central and Eastern Europeans further activated the geopolitical dimension of the EU and showcased their importance in shaping the EU’s future. We must accept that there is a very practical opportunity for CEE nations to become more influential in the bloc when it comes to developing the continent’s foreign policy agenda. They are free of post-colonial baggage, thus making them good candidates to help to steer the European dialogue with global partners such as India.

< style="color: #0069a6;">Central and Eastern Europeans further activated the geopolitical dimension of the EU and showcased their importance in shaping the EU’s future.

With Central and Eastern Europeans dramatically increasing their investments in defence, it is likely that they will become the best armed countries in Europe. Poland, for example, has announced that it will dedicate 4 percent of its gross domestic product annually to defence. With the potential reconstruction of Ukraine on its way, with an educated, skilled, and cheap labour force, economic activity might move to the East. The world should mark this moment in European history as a key geopolitical shift, when Europe begins to breathe fully with its two lungs, when the East and the West of the continent begin to complement each other.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Contributor

Robert Vass

Robert Vass

Robert Vass is a founder and President of GLOBSEC a CEE-based think/do tank committed to enhancing security prosperity and sustainability in Europe and throughout the ...

Read More +