The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

  • What are dominant views in your country on future relations with Russia?


“ambiguity between special relations and weariness”

The question on future relations with Russia is a complicated one that is answered ambiguously by most authors. Many of the EU member states are described to actually have a close or special relationship with Russia. This is based on energy dependency (Hungary, Slovakia, Finland) or more generally energy interests (Italy), economic interests due to trade relations (Croatia, Finland, Germany, Slovenia), geopolitical relations (Arctic – Denmark) or a historic central role in external relations (Finland). In the case of Greece, it is based on a combination of historical and cultural relations and the perspective of increased cooperation in the energy sector. The same applies for many other member states due to the ban of exports of the food sector to Russia based on the sanctions it imposed on EU member states. These different kinds of special relationship do not preclude judging Russia as increasingly unstable and a threat leading to policies being guided by pessimism and pragmatism.

At the same time, the sanctions are supported if not enthusiastically but by a majority according to all reports. They are not seen as a means to themselves however and should be carefully re-evaluated according to many. Only a minority of countries advocate a lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia. In many countries there is a sentiment however, that the medium- to long-term goal should be to re-establish good working relations with Russia (Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg) by remaining open to dialogue (the Netherlands).

There are exceptions to this position in both directions: in the United Kingdom it is reported to be believed that Russia was provoked by the EU’s aggressive diplomacy concerning the Association Agreement. Hungary is one of the member states reported to be pursuing a strong pro-Russian foreign policy, while public opinion is more balanced than the political elites. The opposition against sanctions is growing in Luxembourg. Other member states’ debates reflect a more mistrustful position vis-à-vis Russia, these include Estonia and Latvia in alliance with Poland but also Romania. Unlike Germany and Italy, who strive for a political solution of the Ukraine crisis, Estonian officials support the arming of Ukrainian forces by NATO. Other country reports present the fact that the countries are also increasing their defence spending (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden). All three Baltic reports mention the difficulty of informing their Russian speaking minorities through alternative channels than Russian media, which they label propaganda-based.

While the Russian stance in the Ukrainian conflict is a cause for worries among the public in many EU member states (Sweden, Estonia, Spain, Romania), there is a relatively high public support for the current political approach (Slovakia, Poland). In Italy and Spain the population is reported to be more sceptical about the sanctions.

Overall, it seems that the authors of the individual country reports are well aware of positions in other member states. In the different member states a very similar approach to the topic and perhaps even a European convergence in the opinion on this topic can be observed.


  • How do the events in Ukraine affect the views in your country on EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries?


“Quest for a delicate balance”

In principle the political majorities in the member states support Eastern Partnership. However it is not necessarily a foreign policy priority for every member state or for their public debate, exceptions being Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. This has not necessarily changed due to the events in Ukraine, even if more attention is paid to that country and the events taking place there (Hungary) and despite the bilateral ties of many member states with Ukraine being strengthened (Latvia, Lithuania). Overall, the Eastern Partnership is seen as an important partnership that is however affected by certain flaws. Some see it through the prism of EU-Russia relations (Finland, Italy) or as a form to strengthen European independence from Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Netherlands). This stands in strong relation to the opinion that the east European and southern Caucasus countries should be free to chose their institutional affiliations (Sweden). With respect to this, a unison condemnation of annexation of Crimea can be observed in many country reports. Only a minority of the reports show support for a membership perspective for (some of) the Eastern Partnership countries (Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania), others are explicitly wary of raising such a perspective (Finland).

Some country reports stress the need for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) to focus more on Mediterranean countries including Turkey (Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain). Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Slovenia and France consider that there should remain a single ENP policy for both eastern and southern dimensions.

There are no indications that there are large discrepancies between the official government lines and the public opinion on this question. In Lithuania there is a call to the EU from both the public at large and political elites to focus more on the Eastern Partnership region. From the United Kingdom it was reported that among the general public there is little awareness of the Eastern Partnership concept and a growing hostility towards further EU enlargement. In the Netherlands there is scepticism among the population about the ability of ENP countries to carry out reforms and there is a general aversion to further enlargement.


  • How was the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga on 21/22 May 2015 assessed in your country?


In many countries the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga received very limited press coverage (Estonia, Italy, United Kingdom, Austria, Greece), especially when compared to the Vilnius Summit (the Netherlands and Romania).

By some accounts (Poland and Lithuania), the lack of new steps was due to a loss of interest by EU member states and their leaders in the Eastern Partnership project. Others (the Netherlands, Spain, Croatia) considered that progress was hampered because of the difficulty to balance appeasing Russia and pleasing the Eastern Neighbourhood partner countries. The limited internal reforms carried through in the countries in question were also hailed as a stumbling block for increased cooperation by some (Cyprus and Lithuania). It is striking to see that in the analysis of the outcome of the Summit the difference of interests among EU member states was cited as a cause for minimal results, often even explicitly by government sources. In Luxembourg the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who considers the dividing lines between the member states to be rigid, pleads in favour of a national approach on the EU’s Eastern Neighbours (‘each member state should have the right to determine one’s own opinion on the matter’).

While the expectations on the Riga Summit were low from the outset in some countries (Cyprus, Spain), the coverage in other countries stressed that the EU has failed to deliver (Finland, Austria, Slovenia). In some countries there was disappointment at the lack of a clear starting date for visa free travel for Ukraine and Georgia (Estonia and Hungary). In Hungary the support for visa free travel for Ukraine was directly linked to the situation of Hungarians living in Ukraine. In many countries on the EU’s eastern border, frustration was felt about the lack of an EU membership perspective for the Eastern Partnership countries. In Slovakia it was specifically reported that this lack of membership perspective was considered at odds with the assertion that the partner countries will see their level of ambition reflected in their relations with the Union.

This differentiation between the Eastern Partnership countries was viewed very positively in some other countries (Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia). By some this was seen as a change of policy and a clear direction for the future of the EU’s policy towards its Eastern Neighbours. Other countries like Germany, still feel that after the Riga Summit that there is a need for reform of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy as it has reached its limits in the current form.

The explicit separation between the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy and the EU enlargement policy was regarded positively by Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Cyprus. As two of the initiators of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, Poland and Sweden regarded the outcome of the summit as a reaffirmation by the EU and the six partner countries of their support for the project of European reforms and European integration.


  • Does the EU need its own army in order to face up to Russia and other threats according to assessments in your country?


Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview on 8 March 2015 that the EU needed its own military in order to deal with the Russian threat, as well as to restore the bloc’s standing around the world. The idea received mixed responses across the European Union. Some countries did not share Juncker’s assessment that Russia is to be considered as credible military threat (Italy, Greece and Cyprus). In Cyprus the view is conversely that the EU should collaborate with Russia on mitigating regional and international security threats. In the three Baltic countries however, the Russian threat was considered very imminent. Several countries have been reported to increase their defence budgets (Lithuania, Latvia and the Netherlands). Also in some countries defence policies are being reconsidered in light of the changed security situation in Europe (for instance in the Netherlands).

Several countries were positioned as traditional supporters of the Common Defence and Security Policy and with an interest to develop the policy area further at European level (Luxembourg, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy). The idea of a European army was however considered unrealistic (Finnish and Estonian government, Lithuania, Sweden, Spain). Some countries regard the strategic interests of the member states as too diverse to ever consider a European army (Greece and Latvia), while others deemed it a bridge too far as long as member states’ policies are not closer aligned in the form of a real Political Union (Lithuania, Poland) or Defence Union (Spain).

There were a considerable number of countries that stressed their strong preference for security cooperation via NATO and who considered NATO the relevant player in the field (Estonian government, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Sweden, Romania, Poland and Croatian media). In Poland for instance, the society is divided over the idea of an EU army. Opponents  argue that NATO is sufficient, though it should be modernized and adjusted to the current realities. Others do see an EU army as an answer to the current unstable situation in EU’s Eastern and Southern neighbourhood. Such an army would not replace national or NATO forces but supplement them. The idea that an EU army should not hamper NATO’s standing was shared among many countries (including Cyprus, Italy and Spain).

From some other players, the proposal received a more positive reaction. In Germany for instance, the defence minister considered it a viable idea in the future, but not a useful tool for dealing with Russia. Also the German Chairman of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs believes time has arrived for a European army, based on the idea that this will be military more effective than the current smaller national armies. In Austria, the Conservative Austrian People’s Party also envisages a European army as a long-term goal, but not as a reaction to the situation in Ukraine. In Luxembourg, the government also considers a joint European army a welcome idea to improve military efficiency and reduce defence costs, but feasible only as a very long-term project. Other countries see Juncker’s proposal as a scheme for deeper integration and regard the idea critically (United Kingdom, Hungary and Denmark). Denmark proves an interesting case, as the Danes have an opt-out of all defence-related aspects of CFSP, the opt-out was based on the fear that the EU would gradually develop an EU army that would then undermine NATO. The idea of an EU army is also heavily contested across Danish society.



Co-funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union

This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website:

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.