Twenty-five years after the reunification of Germany and a decade after historic enlargements of NATO and the European Union, the transatlantic community has seen dramatic progress in the building of a “Europe Whole and Free.” Today, the Ukraine crisis represents a dramatic peril to that progress. The Atlantic Council convenes North American and European leaders this week consider how best to sustain Europe’s progress toward full peace and security despite the most dangerous challenge to that vision since the Cold War.

The conference’s co-chairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, are the intellectual forces behind this bipartisan project, which will include addresses by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Over two days of discussion, they will be joined by US senators, European leaders, and leading policy architects to consider the path toward a Europe unified and free. Following the conference on April 30, the Atlantic Council will present its annual Distinguished Leadership Awards to honorees who have helped to strengthen relations between North America and Europe. 

The Council convenes these transatlantic leaders as Russian President Vladimir Putin is rejecting the vision that his country’s government once shared of a free, undivided Europe in which Russia would find its peaceful, rightful place. As Putin wields coercion and military assault to prevent Russia’s neighbors from choosing that vision for themselves, this conference is part of an Atlantic Council campaign to galvanize transatlantic action to ensure Ukraine’s survival, to strengthen the identity and the role of Central and Eastern Europe, and to reinvigorate the NATO alliance.

Background: Building Europe after the Cold War

In 1989, with Central and Eastern Europe still dominated by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance, President George H. W. Bush, addressed the citizens of then-divided Germany with his vision for Europe’s future. He foresaw a united continent, built on a foundation of lasting security and shared values of democracy, freedom, and prosperity. That vision of a “Europe Whole and Free” became a cornerstone of President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy and of NATO’s “open door” policy for membership. At its 1999 Washington summit, NATO swept aside much of Europe’s Cold War division by welcoming three former foes—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—to the Alliance. Five years later, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO in the broadest enlargement of its history. In 2009, the Alliance welcomed Albania and Croatia as members.

In 1993, the European Union established its “Copenhagen criteria,” the principles under which it would welcome new members, unifying most of the continent. This paved the way for the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe toward democracy, the rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights, and market economies. Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, followed on May 1, 2004 by eight Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), and two Mediterranean countries (Malta and Cyprus). Bulgaria and Romania became EU member states in 2007, and Croatia in 2013.

This Conference: Purpose and Format

This week’s conference will recognize and celebrate the transformation of Europe achieved in the quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet for a continent in which millions of people still live with the memories of war in their towns and cities—and in which armies now stand alerted and diplomats rush to avert wider war in Ukraine—this event must urgently consider the critical work still to be done. How can the European project be completed in a nonpartisan spirit across the transatlantic community?  How can the current members of NATO and the EU better support the aspirations of nations striving to join transatlantic and European institutions? What lessons do the recent and current transformations of Central and Eastern European states offer for those aspiring members, especially those on the margins of democratic transformation in the continent’s southeast and east?

Conference participants include historians of Europe’s transformation during the twentieth century and key architects of NATO and EU enlargement. Current and former prime ministers and foreign ministers from Europe’s East and South will discuss broad strategies for securing the futures of their regions. Central and Eastern European defense ministers and NATO officials will explore the security questions that now are lit so starkly by Russia’s assaults on Ukraine and the fears of a widened conflict.

Beyond the Conference: The Atlantic Council Works for a “Europe Whole and Free”

The Atlantic Council sees the transatlantic community as an essential resource in solving global problems, particularly that of European peace and security. Following this week’s conference, the Council will present its annual Distinguished Leadership Awards to honorees who have made exceptional contributions to transatlantic relations. On April 30, the Council will present the 2014 awards to President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Airbus Group CEO Thomas Enders; Ukrainian pro-democracy activist and singer Ruslana Lyzhychko; and the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., on behalf of the men and women of ISAF and US Forces Afghanistan.

In response to Russia’s assaults on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council launched a campaign to mobilize transatlantic action to ensure Ukraine’s survival as a united country with a fair chance to build democracy and shape its own future, including, if it chooses, greater integration with Europe. The Council is hosting Ukrainian, European, and US leaders to discuss strategies, developing policy recommendations, and is publishing articles and the UkraineAlert newsletter to keep this crisis at the top of the transatlantic agenda.

The Council’s work to strengthen Central Europe will include the Wrocław Global Forum, which will gather more than 400 business and political leaders on June 5-7. This year’s Forum will focus on the Ukraine crisis, transatlantic defense capabilities, Europe’s energy future, and a globally competitive transatlantic economy. Organized with the Polish Institute for International Affairs and the City of Wrocław, the Forum will feature Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht, and Senator Chris Murphy. This year’s Atlantic Council Freedom Awards, presented to individuals and institutions fighting for democracy and freedom, will honor the People of the Maidan, who forced a shift toward democracy in Ukraine with their months of protest in central Kyiv.

At NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s request, the Atlantic Council is convening young transatlantic leaders to recommend steps to strengthen the Alliance at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales. These emerging leaders—including diplomats, military officers, nonprofit and business leaders, graduate students, and legislative staff members—will meet NATO’s leadership. This project is part of the Atlantic Council’s work to help reinvigorate the Alliance, sustain its open door policy, and advance its relations with its eastern and southern neighbors and global partners.

A transatlantic energy strategy is critical to advancing a Europe whole and free. On November 20-21, the Council will host its sixth Energy and Economic Summit in Istanbul, gathering global leaders to discuss critical issues of instability and political transitions in the Eurasian region, the changing global energy markets, and European and transatlantic energy security. Last year’s keynote speakers included Turkish President Abdullah Gül, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg. The two-day event will again feature more than 300 policymakers and CEOs representing more than forty countries.