Oh Britain, Where Art Thou? (The View from the EU’s Eastern Neighbors)
As the news of the Brexit vote sinks in, commentators are considering the various longer-term effects. I want to highlight the how this may look to the EU’s neighbors to the east, especially countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia that have recently signed Association Agreements with the EU. Ukraine and Moldova, in particular, have electorates that are divided over whether to integrate more closely with the EU or with Russia’s nascent Eurasian Economic Union. The debate over EU integration sparked Ukraine’s Maidan demonstrations and the subsequent separatist conflict. All of these countries faced significant pressure from Russia to reject association with the EU. These countries became effectively a borderland between two systems, those of the EU and of Russia. And Russia, in particular, has treated this as a zero-sum struggle over the futures of these countries that had once been part of the USSR. So what happens in the EU is of critical concern to its neighbors to the east.
And what are the EU’s neighbors seeing today? There are already calls by some for exit referenda in other EU countries such the Netherlands and France. The 2017 French Presidential election is increasingly looking like it will be an important barometer for the future of the Union. News feeds are abuzz with concerns about whether Brexit is the start of a domino chain that will tear the EU asunder.
However, some commentators have suggested that, although there will be a formal exit of the UK, there will actually be ongoing deep coordination and low trade barriers between Britain and the EU. A technical exit but not an existential crisis. It is too early to predict with confidence which of many scenarios will come to pass.
But the fact that the EU’s stability is more uncertain today than it was yesterday will affect regional politics. In the U.S., you might have people looking nervously at the Dow but that is nothing compared to the concerns in Kiev, which is embroiled in a secessionist conflict in part because it chose to bet on the EU being an important part of the future of Ukraine.
For their part, politicians from the EU’s eastern neighbors countries are reacting to Brexit with–how shall I say it?—a stiff upper lip. Interfax-Ukraine reports:
First Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Iryna Gerashchenko and Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration of Moldova Gheorghe Balan have discussed the result of the referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) and its consequences for both countries.
“Ukraine and Moldova are disappointed with the results of the referendum and are concerned about the growing number of eurosceptics in the EU. However, Ukraine and Moldova are committed to the path of European integration and reforms,” Gerashchenko wrote on his Facebook page on Friday afternoon following the meeting.
Brave face notwithstanding, Ukraine and other countries along the EU’s eastern border that decided to sign Association Agreements with the EU will likely need to be reassured that they chose wisely. Some Members of Ukraine’s Parliament are concerned that Brexit will mean the EU will become inward-focused and delay the implementation of aspects of the Association Agreement that came so dear.
The EU will need to think clearly and act decisively not only about how it will manage the divorce with the UK but also about its strategy regarding its eastern neighbors—including both the states of the former USSR and Turkey as well.
For a deep-dive into the EU’s recent policies towards its neighbors (written before Brexit), see this paper from the EU’s Institute for Security Studies.