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How can the EU promote democracy in Eastern Europe and Western Balkans in a time of war?

RE-ENGAGE, a new Horizon Europe project led by NUPI, aims to enhance the EU’s foreign policy toolbox to assist candidate countries on their path towards democracy amidst a European security crisis.

RE-ENGAGE brings together experts from various fields to figure out how the EU can adjust its foreign policy to fit the current situation. 

Photo: NUPI

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the EU is re-engaging with its neighbouring countries to strengthen and secure Europe further. The idea is to bring these countries into the European family of democratic nations to protect against outside interference. 

However, there's a challenge: how to promote democracy during a time of war and increased geopolitical tensions?

Bolstering resilience

That's where the Horizon Europe project RE-ENGAGE comes in. It brings together experts from various fields to figure out how the EU can adjust its foreign policy to fit the current situation.

The project is aimed at bolstering the resilience of the EU and its neighbouring countries. Its primary objective is to confront the challenges posed by external threats, particularly hybrid warfare.

“RE-ENGAGE aims to provide the EU with research-based insights into how the political systems in candidate and potential candidate countries function. Through in-depth case studies in in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Neighbourhood we will provide insights that will make them better prepared to offer targeted assistance throughout the enlargement process, hopefully making the efforts more efficient,” says NUPI Research Professor and RE-ENGAGE coordinator Pernille Rieker. 

Confronting negative external influence

RE-ENGAGE will study how EU engagement in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Neighbourhood are challenged by negative external actors, how this engagement is likely to develop in the future, and what the EU can do to counter it.

The project’s analytical starting point is that one must understand the level of hybridity and social cohesion in a society to know which means will reduce the room for manoeuvre enjoyed by these negative forces in obstructing the EU’s democracy promotion efforts.

Furthermore, the project will analyse how and to what extent the EU is becoming more resilient against hybrid threats and warfare, and how the neighbourhood policy and the accession process can strengthen the overall foreign policy arsenal against such threats. 

The project's objectives can be summarized in three key areas:

  1. To inform the ongoing revision of the enlargement process, making it more adaptive to the current context of war and geopolitical tensions.
  2. To deliver forecasts and scenarios regarding the ambitions of external actors like China, Russia, and potentially Turkey in the Western Balkans and Eastern Neighbourhood.
  3. To enhance the EU's resilience against military, primarily hybrid or non-conventional threats.

Western Balkans and Eastern Neighbourhood 

RE-ENGAGE will study six candidate or potential candidate countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia in the Western Balkans; and Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in the Eastern Neighbourhood, to identify effective strategies for integration and resilience. 

The European Commission’s recent recommendation to initiate EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova underscores the timeliness of the RE-ENGAGE project.

“We put a lot of effort into the application, and we are eagerly looking forward to starting work on this project with our excellent partners from different parts of Europe,” says Rieker.

In addition to NUPI, eleven partner institutions from Germany, Czechia, Italy, Bulgaria, Sweden, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova (see fact box) will assist the EU in developing its foreign policy toolbox.

The Horizon Europe project is granted 3 million Euro over three years and will start up already on 1 January 2024. The project has been developed by Research Professor Pernille Rieker (PI), Research Professor Morten Bøås and NUPI Director Kari M. Osland, with support by Senior Advisers Andrea Myhrbraaten and Marie Furhovden.