A Swedish-led listening tour of the East

Commentary

The EU should start listening and involving the small and fragile states of the eastern neighbourhood, and the Swedish Presidency should be the body lead this "listening tour" charge.

This piece was published as part of the author's EUObserver blog.  

The Swedish EU presidency, which starts on 1 July 2009, is getting a lot of advice on what to do during its presidency. But here is one idea more idea for the Swedish EU presidency (contained in our recent ECFR report on the Eastern neighbourhood). The Swedish Presidency should convene a "listening tour" of the Eastern neighbourhood - a Troika visit by the Swedish foreign minister, Javier Solana, the Commissioner for External Relations, and the future Spanish EU presidency to each of the six Eastern neighbours of the EU: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia). Here is why such a tour is needed and why the Swedish presidency is the best actor to initiate it.

To begin with, the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague, judged by its attendance list, was a near-failure. If the objective of the Eastern partnership was to relaunch the neighbourhood policy and raise its political profile, its start was not impressive. The Swedish presidency-led "listening tour" would help relaunch politically the neighbourhood policy in the East. It would repair some of the political damage done by the unimpressive Eastern partnership summit in May 2009. But the purpose of such a tour should not only be symbolic.

The EU "listening tour" would serve a second purpose of starting to involve the neighbourhood states in the debates on the new European security  architecture, initiated by president Medvedev in June 2008. The EU thinks of a possible response to Medvedev as outlined in the Munich 2009 speech by Javier Solana. But listening to the neighbourhood countries' concerns would be a good way for the EU to formulate its response to Medvedev's proposals. At the end of the day many, if not most, of the sensitive issues in EU-Russia security relations are in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Third, there are very few high-level visits to most of the Eastern neighbourhood by EU heads of state, foreign ministers or senior EU officials. The Eastern neighbours feel ignored precisely at the moment when this region causes increasing trouble to the European security and EU-Russia relations. New EU member states used to visit the neighbourhood relatively often. But they lacked the political weight and now they are too busy with the economic crisis. They are also disappointed by the likes of Youshchenko, Saakashvili and Voronin. The feeling of "neighbourhood fatigue" is pervasive, but this will only make the neighbourhood more likely to cause trouble. The EU needs to be present in the region, through high-level visits as well. Especially when things are bad.

Fourth, the last time an EU Troika tour of the Eastern neighbourhood took place was in 2001 - during the previous Swedish EU Presidency. That visit is remembered in the region. At that time, the Troika consisting of the late Anna Lindh, Javier Solana, Chris Patten and Louis Michel visited Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (only Belarus was off the map). There has been no similar tour to the region since then. For example, the only time Javier Solana visited Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (except a second visit to Moldova in April 2009) was during that tour.

The Swedish EU Presidency has the standing and credibility to launch such a "listening tour", which would help relaunch the Eastern Partnership as well as feed into the EU's response to a debate on the European security architecture that is likely to keep the EU-Russia-neighbourhood security agenda busy for the next few years.

The US and Russia are a bit too busy dancing their great power tango under the sounds of a realpolitik syrene. The EU has been busy elbowing itself into the debate. As a result no one tried to involve the Eastern neighbourhood states in a meaningful discussion on the new European security architecture. The neighbourhood states themselves are too busy with their daily security, economic or post-election crisis to think strategically about the bigger picture of European security. The EU should be the one that starts listening and involving the small and fragile states of the European periphery into the discussion of their own future. This is what the EU should come with to the great powers' negotiating table.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: ECFR Council, Wider Europe

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