Attention and resources going East: What's left for global partnerships?

Steven Everts


Triggered by the Russian war in Ukraine, the EU’s focus has shifted towards the East, which is likely to have strong consequences for the EU’s relationship with partner countries elsewhere. In the second commentary of our series ‘To the new leaders of Europe’, Amandine Sabourin looks closely at the new dynamics within the EU and explores what these mean for the new leadership.

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    A few months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU member states unanimously granted candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine, followed by Georgia in December 2023. This opened a new chapter in the story of the relationship between the EU and the ‘Eastern Partnership trio’. Since then, the EU enlargement has been back in the spotlight, with more attention shifting towards the East.

    The EU’s Baltic and Eastern member states have found a unified and louder voice since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, increasing their visibility inside the EU. This has significant implications for EU internal dynamics, as well as the way the EU’s priorities in external relations are defined. For the incoming EU leadership, it will be a strategic imperative to respond to this evolution and strike a balance between the political focus and financial resources shifting East and the long-lasting partnerships with the rest of the world.

    How the EU assistance to Ukraine outnumbered the total EU external action budget

    Since the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine, the support provided by the EU and the member states to Ukraine has amounted to a total of almost € 98 billion, which is as much as the total amount for EU external action globally. In particular, OECD figures for 2022 and 2023 show that the support to Ukraine has largely affected how official development assistance (ODA) is spent: aid to Ukraine accounts for 9% of global ODA, 54% of which comes from EU institutions.

    Figure 1: Net bilateral ODA to Ukraine: 2011-2023

    Screenshot 2024-04-19 at 13.37.02.png
    Source: OECD 11 April 2024; Note: Data for 2023 are preliminary.

    In February 2024, while proposing some orientations for the midterm review of the current EU budget, the EU institutions approved a Ukraine Facility with €50 billion to cover part of the upcoming huge financing needs for the recovery and reconstruction in Ukraine. 

    The efforts deployed by the EU and member states to support Ukraine, and Moldova to a certain extent, in fighting back Russia or addressing the consequences of the war have already affected the use of the development cooperation money in several ways. The newly created European Peace Facility has proven pivotal in supporting the military assistance of the EU and the member states to Ukraine. Moreover, the NDICI-Global Europe’s rapid response mechanism and cushions were intensely used to support Ukraine through macro-financial assistance, budget support and humanitarian aid.

    Figure 2 – Ukraine Facility: €50 billion for 2024 to 2027 (commitments, current prices)* 

    Screenshot 2024-04-19 at 13.42.16.png
    Source: EPRS, March 2024

    One consequence of the increased support to Ukraine has been the drop of bilateral ODA from Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries to least developed countries by 5.2% already in 2022.

    Beyond resources going to Ukraine directly, the war has deepened the drive towards EU priorities, likely to materialise in the forthcoming midterm review of the EU’s €79.5 billion NDICI-Global Europe, which will decide on the reallocations of geographic and thematic envelopes.

    The EU’s attention has shifted to focus more on security at home, which affects the interests and priorities of the EU in international cooperation, with a record of €270 billion spent for defence in 2023. Migration also remains high on the agenda because it comes back to the EU and its member states' direct interests and electoral politics. In fact, while the Ukraine facility was approved, the Council asked the Commission to increase the budget for the neighbourhood and international partnerships by an extra €7.6 billion, mostly to support challenges linked to migration. In the meantime, the twin transition or the promotion of democratic values has been overshadowed by the challenge of the years ahead: enlarging further East. 

    The launch of the accession negotiations with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has shaken the pillars of the enlargement process as we know it, allowing a speedy move from an association regime to a candidate status that was unthinkable before.

    Deepening or widening – is there a choice?

    High on the main European political groups (PES, EPP, Greens, ALDE)’s manifestos for the upcoming European Parliament elections, the question of enlargement will clearly be a key topic with many challenges for the future new EU leadership. 

    But already now, two reports have proposed some changes to be implemented within the present treaties to accommodate new member states and new economies into a wider EU by 2030. This reform should ensure a smooth upcoming decision-making with potentially 36 member states, and put the protection of the rule of law as a top priority

    The launch of the accession negotiations with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has shaken the pillars of the enlargement process as we know it, allowing a speedy move from an association regime to a candidate status that was unthinkable before. Although the geopolitical context explains it, this is not without risks and it was not passed unnoticed in the Western Balkans EU candidate countries

    By accelerating the application process for EU membership of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the EU also strives to enhance European security and aims to restore peace on the continent. This sits in sharp contrast with the motivations of the Western Balkans candidates and earlier enlargement waves, where the  desire to join the EU’s economic market or embrace democratic values prevailed. In this enlargement package deal, coping with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), its values and orientations are mentioned as a requirement, a first that presents the risk of undermining other priorities linked to the enlargement process, like democratisation. 

    Unless the overall envelope for EU external action increases, larger allocations to the neighbourhood region and candidate countries could lead to less resources for other parts of the world, including Africa.

    The financial costs of the future enlargement on a tight EU budget are also likely to be hotly debated, calling for the member states’ solidarity to provide additional money for the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework from 2028. Unless the overall envelope for EU external action increases, larger allocations to the neighbourhood region and candidate countries could lead to less resources for other parts of the world, including Africa. The EU’s agenda is also moving away from development, focusing more on European economic interests and competitiveness. As a consequence, least developed countries are less likely to benefit from its ODA.

    The centre of EU decision-making weight is also moving. The attention shifting to the East is leaving more space for the Baltic, Nordic or Eastern European countries to weigh in the EU’s political game. The EU’s attention has turned towards Ukraine but also Moldova, which hosted the second meeting of the European Political Community in 2023. Both are now counted as part of the European political family, also when it comes to adjusting the priorities of the continent and suggesting to prepare for a war economy.

    Securing and defending Europe as priorities for an inward-looking new term

    Since February 2022, the Russian war in Ukraine has prompted the EU to prioritise inward-looking agendas, notably energy and food security, by accelerating the diversification of critical energy routes and resources. Ensuring its security has become the EU’s foremost concern, also in view of other security challenges affecting the Eastern neighbourhood beyond Ukraine: unresolved conflicts, territorial disputes, and cyber threats recently reaching a new scale in Moldova and Georgia, all involving Russia. Beyond the military assistance to Ukraine and the civilian mission helping Moldova to enhance its security sector resilience, increased attention to this region may imply a reassessment of the EU's security architecture.

    Screenshot 2024-04-19 at 13.49.49.png
    Source: BBC

    In 2022, the security status quo in Europe has been ruptured, triggering the urge to reshape the EU's geopolitical priorities and strategies, including its defence cooperation mechanisms and relationship with NATO. Europe seems to unite around those priorities as the member states are also getting organised to get more leverage on the defence side, with Finland and then Sweden joining NATO. This European Commission’s term has been all about ‘geopolitical’. The next one will most probably be all about security and defence, with a possible dedicated defence portfolio. The Nordic, Baltic and Eastern countries of the EU have started to play a new-found key role in shaping the EU priorities. 

    The EU’s pivot towards the East and the North triggered by the Russian war in Ukraine is likely to have strong consequences on the EU’s relationship with the partner countries beyond the European continent. Unless the new leadership works hard to maintain and – why not? – strengthen the existing partnerships, already shaken by the new EU development policy framework, other EU partners might end up paying the price both in terms of reduced financial flows and shifting political focus.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

    Thank you to San Bilal, Virginia Mucchi and Andrew Sherriff for their useful suggestions and review.

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