by Judy Dempsey*
Those were heady days. Back in 2004, the Baltic states and Central European countries were reaching the finishing line in their negotiations to join the EU.
The “old” member states had agreed on a big-bang enlargement that would admit eight formerly communist countries. It was a marvellous achievement. It was about making Europe whole and free. It was about extending the Euro-Atlantic geographical, security, and democratic space.
Poland was the biggest entrant. Ranking fifth in population inside the bloc, it was in a strong position to carve out an influential role in the EU. Way down the ladder were the three small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Two observations struck me at the time. None of the aspiring entrants coordinated their negotiating positions that would have given them perhaps more leverage. And generally, the Western Europeans had little idea about their new members, their interests, their fears, their history, their identities. Slovenia was often confused with Slovakia.
Two events changed these perceptions.
One was Germany’s decision to build the Nord Stream gas pipelines with Russia. Gas would be sent directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, reducing the role of Ukraine and Poland as transit countries. It would make their energy resources more vulnerable.
Poland and the Baltic states lobbied hard to stop the project. Warsaw used the EU to make energy diversification a major priority for the bloc’s security.
They had few allies among the Western European member states. They worked the machinery in the European Commission and institutions. They argued how the special relationship between Russia and Germany was damaging not only the bloc’s energy security; that it set Berlin against its eastern neighbors. The fear of Berlin and Moscow doing deals behind their backs as they did in the past made them determined to use the EU to pursue their interests.
Fast forward to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Under immense pressure from the United States, Germany ditched Nord Stream 2. The Central Europeans and Balts felt vindicated. They had repeatedly warned about the Kremlin’s imperialistic ambitions, citing Russia’s war in Georgia in 2007, Ukraine in 2014, and support for Belarus’s hardline and ruthless president, Aleksander Lukashenko. They warned it was a Russian policy of testing and dividing Europe.
These small countries knew what it meant to live under Russian occupation. They campaigned to get the EU to provide Ukraine with financial, military, social, and political assistance. They had European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on board. Through intense lobbying along with Ukraine’s indefatigable President Volodymyr Zelensky, they got the EU to agree to starting accession negotiations with Ukraine in December 2023.
It is a remarkable achievement. Small countries did this despite the skepticism of some big member states. More than that, they put their history on the EU map. When it was first established in 1957, the EU’s narrative was about making Western Europe peaceful, stable, gradually integrated, and overcoming the enmity between France and Germany. It was also about having a special security architecture—NATO—anchored on the relationship with the United States.
Today, Russia’s war on Ukraine has given weight to the historical narratives of the small countries of Central Europe and the Baltics. These already inform political and security policies toward Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe.
These different narratives have important implications for the future direction of the EU. The war in Ukraine is about independence and sovereignty. This has a special resonance for the Central European and Baltic states. Even though they all ceded a degree of sovereignty when they joined the EU, they gained voting rights and veto power over many EU decisions.
More recently, however, the idea of protecting their sovereignty has become more pronounced. This is bound to influence the debate over replacing unanimity with qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The plethora of conflicts—plus an enlarged EU—necessitates institutional reforms and, according to the Franco-German paper, they should not be confined to CFSP issues.
Small EU member states—and Poland—are either opposed or hesitant. They worry they will lose influence; that the big member states will dominate, that adopting QMV would be a first step toward more institutional EU reforms.
There is a bigger issue at stake for small countries. It is about how far they are prepared to cede more sovereignty to Brussels. Leaving aside Euroskeptic political parties, for the Central Europeans, sovereignty matters. Long-overdue institutional reforms have to reconcile national sovereignty with the EU’s ambition to assume a serious foreign policy role.
*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe & editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu