Solidarity and communication as the key to strengthening the region. What was discussed at UCEF 2023

Олександра Оберенко

On November 7-8, Lviv hosted the third annual Ukrainian Central European Forum (UCEF 2023), a discussion platform that brought together experts on European integration, geopolitics, security and other issues from across the region.

The forum was organized by the Ukrainian Prism think tank, in partnership with the International Renaissance Foundation and with the support of the European Union, as well as the International Visegrad Fund and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Representation in Ukraine.

In just two days, UCEF 2023 brought together policy makers, researchers, academics, media and civil society from 15 countries to identify common challenges and create a shared vision for the future of Central Europe.

The full list of speakers at the Forum, as well as its program and recordings of the discussions, is available on its website:

This year’s forum was aimed at continuing and deepening the legacy of the First and Second UCEF, which formed a network of expert diplomacy in Central Europe, of which Ukraine is a part. Every year, invited experts bring their thoughts and expertise on current challenges and opportunities for the region to the Forum. This year’s discussions focused on Ukraine, and the challenges included Russian aggression (and all its political, economic, and social consequences), the potential danger posed by Belarus, the fate of the Eastern Partnership, and the perception of the region, and Ukraine in particular, by other countries. Among the possibilities were European integration and political enlargement of the EU, consolidation of Ukrainian society, international support from partners, and military-industrial, diplomatic, economic, and other cooperation between the countries of the region.

“The purpose of this forum is to strengthen the region’s capacity by analyzing current challenges and opportunities for it. This is an extremely important issue both in the context of Ukraine’s immediate needs (consolidation of external support, development of sustainable ways to support defense and economy, etc.) and in the context of building a sustainable partnership between Central European countries,” the organizers explain.

Since the forum was held on the eve of the European Commission’s decision to recommend the start of negotiations on the accession of the candidate countries to the EU, the first discussion panel was fully dedicated to this topic, as well as to the assessment of the current situation and prospects of Ukraine, Romania and Moldova’s accession to the European Union and the trajectory of the EU enlargement process.

Oleksandr Sushko, Executive Director of our Foundation, who spoke at the panel, noted that the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to the EU is more realistic than ever before, and Ukraine is already a participant in the debate about the European future:

“When it comes to future EU reforms, Ukraine is involved not as a ‘consumer of solutions’ but as a stakeholder. Ukraine’s European integration is no longer hypothetical, it is quite real. And this naturally gives rise to concerns on the part of the EU and other participants in the European integration process, based on certain perceptions of Ukraine. I do not think this will be an obstacle to European integration. After all, perception is not something stable that is formed once and for all. We can influence its change, initiate a dialogue with civil society and other stakeholders, and increase knowledge about Ukraine. I am convinced that most of these perceived antagonisms can be resolved through dialogue.”

In addition to him, Hennadii Maksak, Director of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”, Alexandru Victor Micula, Ambassador of Romania to Ukraine, Valeriu Civeri, Ambassador of Moldova to Ukraine, and Felix Goett, Permanent Representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Ukraine, took part in the discussion.

But despite the significant success of European integration, there are still areas that require constant attention. These include the fight against corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and civil rights. Discussions at the forum also touched upon the readiness of Ukrainian civil society to participate in solving problems that may arise in these areas.

In addition, the role of Brussels and Kyiv was also emphasized, including the need to transform the framework of cooperation previously regulated by the Eastern Partnership. However, according to Dmytro Shulga, director of the Europe and World Program at the International Renaissance Foundation, the Eastern Partnership framework is no longer able to cover all the geopolitical nuances of Ukraine-EU relations, including due to Russian aggression:

“The latest version of the EU’s Eastern Partnership did not include cross-border infrastructure projects. Even between Ukraine and Moldova, which, in my opinion, is the easiest thing to do. It seems to me that the Eastern Partnership is slowly dying, so we shouldn’t talk about it, but about the EU’s Eastern policy as a whole. And these conversations must include a discussion of what Russia is for the EU. After all, the Russians are practically saying that in Ukraine they are at war with the “West,” Dmytro Shulga believes.

In general, the topic of European integration and EU enlargement received a lot of airtime at the forum. After all, talking about the future of Central Europe without this context makes as little sense as discussing the risks posed by Russia and its anti-Ukrainian “diplomatic” and “cultural” efforts in the world. Especially in the countries of the Global South.

Therefore, the last panel of the first day was devoted to exploring how Central and Eastern Europe can use the potential of this region, in particular to promote its regional and purely Ukrainian interests, as well as to counter Russian propaganda and influence in the Global South. The panelists examined possible strategic alliances and narratives that CEE countries could use to do so in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere.

On the second day of the forum, participants touched upon such topics as the experience of Ukrainians living outside of Ukraine due to Russian aggression, the potential dangers posed to Central and Eastern Europe by Belarus, the challenges of market integration into the EU caused by the war, and the role of communication in EU-Ukraine relations.

For example, in a panel on forced migration, participants focused on the dilemma of “integration or return” and tried to figure out whether Ukraine should focus its resources on deepening integration in countries where people are already established or on returning citizens home. The first scenario, according to the participants, would help Ukraine to appear in the public discourse of countries where Ukrainians will remain and create ties for future international partnerships, and could work well in the long run. The second scenario would have more positive economic consequences for Ukraine and would preserve the country’s human capital, which is crucial for its recovery.

In addition to the challenges and dilemmas, the forum also discussed the achievements that Ukraine and other countries in the region have demonstrated over the past year. The Eastern Partnership Index (an in-depth and critical analysis of the European integration process by civil society), diplomatic victories of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, and significant progress in reforms necessary for EU accession were noted.

A good closing note of the Forum was the announcement of the EC’s decision to recommend that EU member states start accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Dmytro Shulga noted that this decision shows that our significant progress in fulfilling the reform requirements has been recognized by the European Commission, and this is an important step in the direction in which Ukraine is confidently moving towards its European home.

You can listen to the discussions at all the panels of the forum on its website.


The forum was organized by the Ukrainian Prism think tank in partnership with the International Renaissance Foundation and with the support of the European Union, as well as the International Visegrad Fund and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Representation in Ukraine.

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