EU at ‘huge risk’ after ‘failure’ sends Eastern neighbours ‘spiralling out of control’

Zelensky accuses Russia of trying to destabilise Moldova

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Professor Amelia Hadfield, head of the University of Surrey’s politics department, told Express.co.uk the EU had not only allowed neighbouring countries to “spiral out of control”, but was “not facing up critically enough to the governance issues within its own union”. She noted that Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine was “a material example of how bad things can get if you ignore it”.

A team of researchers at the University of Surrey have now received a £658,000 grant through Horizon Europe to provide a critical assessment of the “bleak state” of liberal democracy in eastern Europe over the next three years.

Such funding for British researchers has come under threat after the UK and EU failed to reach an agreement on a continued partnership in the academic programme. Brussels has been accused of withholding an agreement due to the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

However, Professor Hadfield’s research was commissioned before this became an issue, and it is hoped it will provide the bureaucracy with a “pretty critical” view of where it is failing to shore up democracies and how it can improve its policy towards neighbouring states.

Academics from across 11 European institutions will speak to politicians in nations such as Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Ukraine about the rise in illiberalism in their nations.

Yet, this is something which the expert on European politics admitted would not have happened if the work had been commissioned before the invasion.

Instead, she said, it would have been entirely Brussels-centred.

Speaking on Thursday, Professor Hadfield laid bare the “ongoing deep anxiety” within the EU about the support of the neighbourhood countries – countries that border the European Union. There are fears some neighbours “have begun to spiral out of control in terms of being legitimate, democratic units”.

Professor Hadfield added: “There has been a growing sense in the last five to 10 years that they’re just good enough, and that they tick enough generic governance boxes.”

She suggested that “maybe the penny has finally dropped within the European Union that the very real rise of illiberalism […] cannot continue because it erodes the European Union’s own ability to be an exporter of these morals”.

While Professor Hadfield believed there was a “good history of democratisation processes in general in this eastern neighbourhood”, this work had “slowed” in recent years, and there was now “stagnation”.

She stated that it was these eastern European nations that “the European Union has singularly failed to engage with in the long term”.

Professor Hadfield said: “They’ve been very happy to throw money at them.
[…] But this time round, it’s just not going to fly; you’ve got a tradition, more than five years old, of illiberalism eating away at the institutional decision-making structures and eroding some of the civil society trust and confidence in the European Union.”

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Referencing the war in Ukraine, the leading academic highlighted “the failure of the European Union to get on top of this, the tacit acceptance of the EU of illiberal neighbours, and the huge risk this runs”.

Belarus – a bedfellow of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been accused of hosting Russian forces to aid them in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – was unwilling to join the research programme.

Professor Hadfield noted: “Antagonists are very likely to be able to use – either tacitly or explicitly – individual regimes to their own ends.” As such, her team of researchers is proposing a “get real” policy for the EU when it comes to its neighbours.

She added: “The war in Ukraine – it’s a bittersweet thing to say – has actually helped this, because you have a material example of how bad things can get if you ignore it.”

However, it is not just eastern European nations outside the bloc that have been accused of democratic backsliding: in recent months, there has been a growing rift between Brussels and the likes of Hungary and Poland over increasingly divergent views of how a democracy should be run.

This fissure has become all too obvious in the opening stages of the Ukrainian invasion, when Poland welcomed refugees from the war in their millions while simultaneously being fined a million euros a day over its challenge to the primacy of EU law when it came to the nation’s judiciary.

Asked if the democratic problems it faced outside its border were just a continuation of those inside the bloc, Professor Hadfield responded: “I wouldn’t disagree.

“I think the EU hasn’t covered itself in glory, first of all, in not facing up critically enough to the governance issues within its own union – possibly because it knows this.

“It has been anxious, worried, a bit circumspect about tackling the neighbourhood. I think the reason is enlargement: if it provides a huge amount of support and willingness and open doors, the obvious question is going to be, ‘great, when do we get to join?’

“And up until very recently, they’ve kept that door very shut.”

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