In late March, 200 German intellectuals wrote to Vladimir Putin to say that “we see the secession of the Crimea as a defensive measure”, signing off by wishing him “strength, stamina, intelligence and skill” in his third term as Russia’s president. It was a move unimaginable from central and eastern European intellectuals. When the region’s intellectuals and politicians have written open letters, they have been addressed westward, to the United States and the European Union, to voice their support for the invasion of Iraq (in 2003) and worry about a US drift away from Europe (in 2009).
Those letters have nurtured the notion of a ‘new Europe’ – strongly Atlanticist and deeply worried about Russia – and an ‘old Europe’, weakly Atlanticist and complaisant with Russia. But the Ukraine crisis has shown up sharp differences between Russia’s closest EU neighbours, ranging from Slovakia’s opposition to economic sanctions on Russia to Lithuania’s tough stance towards Russia. Toughness, though, has not always translated into commitment: it was only in response to the Ukraine crisis that Latvia and Lithuania this month finally announced they would boost defence spending to the NATO target of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP).
In the Balkans, the central and east Europeans have been among the leading voices, despite the trickiness of Slovakia’s and Slovenia’s relations in the region. By contrast, Cyprus has merely been a source of headaches for diplomats. It is mistrusted because of its ties with Russia, while the island’s division between Greek and Turkish communities has restricted the EU’s relationship with NATO and undermined diplomacy with Turkey, Kosovo and Macedonia.
The turmoil in Syria has yet to affect Cyprus significantly, but the ‘Arab spring’ and migration from north Africa has given Malta a bigger stake in EU foreign policy than was expected in 2004.
The EU’s entrants from 2004 can now expect their views to become more central, because of the problems in Ukraine, north Africa and the Middle East, and the slow enlargement deeper into the Balkans. But this will also further test their weaknesses. Czech presidents have consistently undermined the foreign ministry. The integration of the Balkans will put Slovakia and Hungary in the spotlight: Slovakia has yet to recognise Kosovo as a state, because of fears of Hungarian irredentism, concerns not eased by Hungary’s extension of voting rights to Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states (albeit not Hungarian Slovaks). The Ukraine crisis will test the full implications of Hungary’s policy of ‘opening to the East’, with the ‘East’ understood as Asia as well as Russia: is this a grand phrase for a mundane ambition (Hungarian trade with Asia is small by EU standards), or might Hungary become Europe’s weakest point in clashes with Russia and China?
But even if geopolitics increases the class of 2004’s prominence, they have to find a formula to maximise their influence on European policy.
They are realising that, to secure western Europe’s attention for their Russia- and Balkan-related concerns, they need to pay more attention to western Europe’s concerns, which, until the Ukraine crisis, were more focused southward. The effect is evident in defence issues. While central and eastern European states’ paramount defence concern remains to ensure that EU security policy does nothing to undermine NATO, they increasingly accept that the EU can be a niche security player, particularly in missions in north Africa and the Sahel.
The only big country in the region – Poland – may now be getting close to punching its weight, thanks to stronger ties with Germany. For the smaller countries, the challenge is to punch above their weight. They are trying, partly through closer regional co-operation, through the Visegrád Four – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – and, for the Baltic states, with outreach to the Nordic states.
But perhaps only one state – Estonia – can yet claim to have forged an effective, consistent, and credible foreign policy that gives it greater weight than its size would suggest. A rare example of a country that spends 2% of GDP on defence, Estonia is also a leader on issues such as cyber-security and – by contributing troops to the EU’s mission to the Central African Republic – is showing a commitment to European foreign policy outside its immediate neighbourhood.