12. December 2014

The position paper on “The limits of Europe: The future of the EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbours“ written by FutureLab Europe openned the the Europe@debate on 9 December at Eurooppasali in Helsinki.

Carl Haglund, Finnish Minister of Defence, responded in his keynote speech to some of the issues raised, followed by a panel debate about the future of the EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbours in the light of current events in Ukraine.The youth perspective was represented by Ulyana Vynyarchuk (Ukraine) and Heidi Beha (Germany). Also taking part in the panel were youth party leaders Li Andersson, President of the Left Youth, and Teppo Säkkinen, President of the Centre Youth in Finland.  The event under the auspices of Svenska Kulturfonden and Suomen Kulttuurirahasto was moderated by Noora Löfström.

“The situation in Ukraine is in a sense a crisis of democracy:  fair elections are in place, yet the directions of events were not what people believed it would be.” Carl Haglund stressed that behind what is going on in the streets, there is a division of the country and a part of Ukraine is closer to Russia than we want to acknowledge.  The EU needs to show with its presence that it has its eyes on what is happening in Kiev, to make sure that the authorities do not misuse the situation.

The EU-Russia dynamics have a negative effect on the countries of Eastern Partnership; choosing between East and West is not a natural situation for countries that historically had ties to both directions. The minister also stressed that a situation where EU and Russia are negotiating on “who is to have what kind of relations with whom” would be an unfortunate solution. Heidi Beha claimed that the Cold War logic of relations in the region, which is also reflected in the incompatible and mutually exclusive trading blocks on offer, has to be reassessed.

“The crusade of 21 century is a crusade of values, in Ukraine people fight for closer ties to Europe and against the violence executed on the protesters by the riot police“ argued Ulyana Vynyarchuk. She warned that there is a temptation to solve the conflict in a violent way from government’s side.

Alle participants in the discussion shared a fear that in the short run Ukraine is likely to be increasingly dependent on Russia. The bid from the East might simply be more tangible: EU’s economic offers with a promise of full materialization in some ten years were contrasted against the Russian gas or import bans which knock at the door with urgency.

In the long run an approximation with the EU might be more favourable, but this depends both on the young people in Ukraine and the capacity of EU’s common foreign policy towards the region. With the multitude of principles and positions within the EU when it comes to foreign policy, a common stance (or a shared sense of urgency) remains a distant notion.  Therefore, the European Commission should have a stronger role in policies towards the East, especially towards Russia.

What role is there for Finland? Russia is a very complex topic for this country, which maintains a pragmatic, low profile politics. Finland does not want to take the leading role in pursuing a more desirable state of EU’s relations to this neighbor, despite the geographic proximity and the shared border, pointed out Li Anderson. She believes, however, that the country should be more open towards a new visa/movement facilitation agreement as something that “we can all relate to”. Teppo Säkkinen stressed that Finland could have been in the same situation as the countries to the east of EU’s border had it taken one different turn in the past choice of pathway.

The panelists agreed that if the EU is about promoting peace, then the future of Europe is in the Balkans and the countries of Eastern Europe. This necessitates a patient long-term process, in which the countries should not be treated as victims or as pupils to be taught. The crucial role of people-to-people exchanges and increased mobility for individuals of all walks of life was stressed.

The “European neighbourhood” is in turmoil and if the EU wants to be taken seriously as a global player, it has to prove capable of building sustainable partnerships in its own backyard. One difference between the Eastern Partnership and Southern Mediterranean is that some countries are European. The biggest achievement of EU – the economic integration of internal market and especially the free movement of people – should be extended to them in the future.

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