Navigating Europe's Changing Landscape: An Interview with Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK

In her research, Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK focuses on the EU's relations with the Eastern neighbours as well as Russia’s policy towards the post-Soviet states.


This year, she became the Chairholder of the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe in Natolin.

Question: What is the one thing you like most about Natolin?

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: The best thing about Natolin is the amazing community. When it comes to both the students and staff, it's very difficult to find elsewhere such a diverse and harmonious international community where the people are so enthusiastic and eager to do their best.

Question: What are the three things you are most looking forward to in your work as the Chairholder of the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair? 

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: Obviously being on the campus – it is a beautiful place. But it's really the people who make the campus and I really look forward to working with such enthusiastic and committed people. There are very few institutions like this in Europe where people are willing to stay until midnight to ensure that students have everything what they need, for example, for their graduation ceremony. So that commitment from people from all kinds of backgrounds, from all walks of life, makes Natolin a really stimulating place to work.

Also because there are many professionals amongst staff members here, you can learn a great deal from digitalisation to communication to marketing. Working with a variety of professionals in a relatively small place is an advantage that one doesn't get everywhere.

The third thing I'm looking forward to is this: we are seeing big changes, big shifts across Europe and beyond, particularly because of Russia’s war against Ukraine. There is no better place to study these shifts and resulting challenges than the College of Europe in Natolin. So, I'm really excited about being able to explore these changes from within the institution, but also to contribute to the debate and to make a difference when it comes to the EU's relations with its neighbours and prospective members.

Question: What are the main shifts that you are seeing in your research?

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: Many things, which we now see have been in the making for a long time, but they didn't come out in the open. For example, regarding the European Neighbourhood Policy, what we've observed is a relative separation of the southern and eastern neighbourhood. So we have a massive diversity not only in terms of EU's relations with the southern neighbours and with the eastern neighbours but also in relations with different countries. But there was this tendency or desire in the EU to keep things as ‘regional’ as possible. Now we can see that neither in the southern nor the eastern neighbourhood we have those coherent regional frameworks that the EU has been working so hard on and hoping to create: we have fragmentation and divergence. So, with the ENP, the EU is back to a drawing board in some respects.

The second issue is that Russia's war on Ukraine has really brought the message home that we just cannot have this benevolent policy supporting development and modernisation in the neighbouring countries, when there are other countries intent on and actually carrying out aggression and destruction. It's really a wakeup call for the EU.

At the same time, the way the EU has responded by granting candidate status to countries in the eastern neighbourhood like Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, means that we have fundamental shifts in terms of what's happening in the eastern neighbourhood, where the coherence of the Eastern Partnership is increasingly questioned. We also have important developments in the southern neighbourhood, with regard to individual countries and regional cooperation. There is a plethora of very important tectonic shifts, and the opportunity to study them at the College of Europe in Natolin is very exciting.

Question: And what are your plans for the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair?

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: As I said, it is a very exciting time, but also challenging because of all the simultaneous and fast-moving changes. We cannot carry business as usual in terms of continuity of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Yet the change is happening so quickly that we need to work out our priorities. We face the challenge of reorienting the Chair team’s research agenda in terms of actually responding to the challenges. And one of our main priorities now, is to find a research fellow or two to focus their research on the southern neighbourhood.

And we also will be focusing on, as always, engaging the students, enabling them to do interesting projects, to pursue their interests. And the challenge and opportunity is that there is so much happening that they can tap into various issues, which are already covered by the Natolin Nests, for example, such as migration and energy or disinformation. We also have excellent visiting professors who can not only inform and teach, but inspire the students to do more, to prepare them with professional skills, for example, to fight disinformation. It's really about tapping into students’ enthusiasm and to engage them to capitalise on all the opportunities within the College to explore the southern and eastern neighbourhoods.

Question: What would you like to change? 

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: As I am starting, I think I've learned in life it's much better to understand how things are and to get the logic rather than come with big ideas which may not actually be the best solution. My plan, at least in the short term, is to find out as much as possible, to learn and to diagnose, and then we can work and implement changes. I'm not planning any radical changes, not least because our agenda is already in fact a bit predetermined for the ENP Chair. We are involved in a Horizon project, funded by the EU, called ENGAGE.

This is a large project with a number of international partners, which is reviewing EU's foreign and security policy. And  we've just won a new research grant for a New Horizon project called REUNIR, it will start from January 2024. The REUNIR project is focused on the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans.

So those two international projects will no doubt will keep us busy. This is also because the REUNIR project is focused on the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans, so it will provide us with a very much needed and timely opportunity to compare and to study the experiences of political socio-economic transformation in the Eastern Partnership countries and in the Western Balkans. It's a new dimension, a new research area which we will be taking on and which hasn’t been really done so it’s going to be cutting-edge research.

Question: What is your secret in winning grants? If you could offer advice to people applying for grants, what's the secret to become a success story?

Professor Kataryna WOLCZUK: I think I always emphasize the human factor, if I can put it this way. Horizon projects work if you find the right partners with the right expertise but also with whom you can work. It makes it much easier to reach agreement and develop a common vision. Any project is always based on a shared vision, and from that point of view, we are exceedingly privileged to work with such renowned international partners in both projects from across Europe and beyond. Horizon projects are always rather complex but they also provide excellent opportunities for interdisciplinary research as well as intensive training for common problem solving.