Eastern Europe in the Long Shadow of Brexit

Main Image Credit courtesy of AP Photo/Virginia Mayo. Moldova's Prime Minister Lurie Leanca, left, shakes hands with former European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, center, during a signing ceremony at an Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU could have a significant impact on the Union’s ability to help nations on its Eastern borders implement political and economic reform, or to respond to Russia’s determined efforts to expand its sphere of influence.

Last Thursday’s Brexit vote may have thrown the UK and the West into major convulsions, but it has been equally devastating for the countries of the EU’s aspiring Eastern Partnership.

The EU’s current preoccupations make it unlikely that Brussels will be able to focus on the westward paths of its eastern neighbours, at least in the near term, and anticipate an emboldened, ever-more brazen Putin. At the same time, the Union’s increasingly tarnished reputation means that the prospect of membership is no longer considered the holy grail for countries facing tough reforms in exchange for the West’s rewards.

Some former Soviet states are in a perilous position;  Moldova and Georgia are on Russia's doorstep, with long historical and cultural ties in both directions, and host substantial Russian-speaking minorities.

The Putin regime has openly questioned both the wisdom and legitimacy of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and both overtly and covertly seeks to undermine the authority of many of the newly independent states. Russia flexes its muscle through its omnipresent TV channels, which spout propaganda, and through cyber attacks, economic blackmail, use of violent proxies, organised crime, and the funding of foreign political parties. The Russians enjoy big advantages vis-à-vis the West in this neighbourhood: geographically, culturally, and in terms of their more basic goals. They seek to win influence, but if they can’t secure a neighbouring country’s allegiance, they are more than willing to curtail its march westward by other means.

In states such as Moldova, with entrenched Russian minorities, the battle for influence is particularly evident, in the form of the frozen conflict and a de facto quasi-criminal state in Transnistria; the resulting turmoil and discord serves Russian interest well.

The UK referendum vote has left the countries of the EU’s near East at the mercy of an emboldened and enhanced Moscow, and their principal ally, the EU, confused and demoralised. Some would argue that the attraction of the Union for the countries of the near East has always been primarily an economic one rather than being based on shared values and common aspirations. Brexit only adds to the confusion in states like Moldova and Georgia where there is already debate about whether the price of democratic and economic reforms – some of which target deeply corrupt state structures – is worth the tarnished EU reward. The EU looks less and less attractive; discredited now by one of its own major players, and assailed by political turmoil, economic instability and uncontrolled refugee flows.

In this context, it is hard to imagine Russia not redoubling its efforts – using economic blackmail in the form of control of crucial access to markets, and agricultural trade bans and restrictive energy policies as needed. Russian exhortations for influence in these countries are also unencumbered by unpopular Western ‘obsessions’ with the abuse of human rights or corruption. 

Britain’s departure from the EU turns Europe inwards at a critical time, when the fate of Ukraine is up for grabs and when Georgia and Moldova weigh the respective merits of the Eurasian Customs Union and EU accession.

Moreover, and even if some of these baleful effects are avoided, there are limits to the Union’s capacity, for there is only so much EU bandwidth. For the foreseeable future this is going to be taken up by a Western focus on a domestically driven battle to stave off other, internal EU member referenda on departing the Union. Brussels will have little time to devote to its Eastern partners.

The EU exerts considerable influence through the assistance programmes of member states and the loss of the UK takes away a major player in development assistance and political support. Many of the EU members are too small to field a diplomatic presence in the Eastern Partnership countries, or lack the leverage to make a difference. In Eastern Europe, the EU is the largest donor to economic and political development programmes; it remains to be seen whether that will continue in light of the latest trouble at home.

What the countries straddling the EU and Russia desperately need now more than ever is a clear, consistent, and confident sign from Brussels that Brexit does not mean a change in  its commitment to the rest of Europe. The Union’s confusion and pre-occupation contrasts with the ever-present smiling countenance of Vladimir Putin – a reminder that erstwhile friends and fortunes may change, but geography and pipelines are constant.

The message seems to be that if you think the EU will save you, think again.

Geneve Mantri is a writer and national security consultant living in Washington DC.

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