Ukraine : European Union strengthened or forced?

An article to be found in our special file: The Ukrainian conflict in the eurasian space: an overview

Sanction packages, positions aligned with a denunciation of Russian invasion, recently adopted structuring plans such as REPowerEU, adoption of an EU “strategic compass” for 2030, … The European Union seems to be finding a new impulse and is tending to give itself the necessary means for action whilst faced with the war in Ukraine, despite the consequences and strong constraints that these advances may represent on the situation for member states and institutions. The blocked attempt at a European Constitution in 2005, which finally led to the controversial Lisbon Treaty that came into effect in 2009, the economic crisis of 2008, then the debt crisis in the euro zone, the migratory crises, the European elections of 2019 with a significant number of members of parliament from groups with a certain Euroscepticism, the COVID-19 crisis, which the management has profoundly questioned the capacity of European institutions to deal with it from the outset, and finally, a BREXIT that was hardly negotiated, marking the first exit of a member state, … the following are the “crisis” factors that have been put forward to describe the complex European situation at the beginning of this year 2022. Until recently, the EU seemed to be more criticized by its detractors, and showed real difficulties in fully finding its place, especially in areas of shared competence with the Member States, and therefore in reconciling the various interests of the latter in order to be able to carry a unified, clear voice, capable of anchoring its decisions in the service of action and efficiency. The war in Ukraine should not be seen today, as the only pretext for the strong activity of the institutions of the European Union, it seems just as complicated to doubt a march towards their strengthening. But if the context of war at Europe’s borders seems to ” oil ” the wheels that seemed to have previously collapsed, we cannot avoid the need for a deeper and more complex analysis of what is at stake today, especially between member states, its institutions, and their inter- connectivity. Building a strong European Union in the face of emergencies and war must not make us forget the reality of a Union that is still struggling to find its place on the continent and internationally.

A strong activity of the European Union faced with crisis …

There is no doubt that the Member States of the European Union and its institutions seem inclined to align their positions on condemning the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Without confining itself to a discourse of goodwill in support of Ukraine, the Union has been dynamic and has for several months been providing itself with ambitious means of constraints and dissuasive actions. As early as January 24, 2022, even before the beginning of the Russian invasion, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced “a new financial aid package” for Ukraine in response to the behaviour of a Russia considered aggressive. Outside its borders, and only three days later, the European Union said it was ready to take restrictive measures against the Sahel states suspected of employing Russian mercenaries, after confirmation of the presence of Wagner militiamen in the area, especially in Mali. On May 10 and 11 following the beginning of the war, Emmanuel Macron invited the Heads of State and Government of the 27 EU countries, the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council to reaffirm the ties uniting the European countries.

We note, moreover, that it has been quick to initiate the various packages of sanctions – now numbering six – the first of which was adopted at the beginning of the Russian military campaign, which began on February 24th, 2022. Without going into the details of these sanctions, and without questioning the real effects, they may have on the individual and entities targeted, and more broadly on the Russian economy, we can nevertheless underline the highly symbolic aspect they take on, and the commitment they represent, often despite of the situation of the member states. The European Union can thus show that it is capable of speaking with one voice, of reconciling sometimes divergent interests, and also of attracting those who have shown themselves reluctant towards it on various occasions. The resumption of European sanctions by Switzerland, a historically neutral country, is a good example of this ability to agree on its positions. The results of the referendum held on 1st June in Denmark, a state which until then had benefited from an exemption clause on participation in the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy, suggest that the feeling of a united European voice in the face of Russia does not only concern national and European institutions, but also nonnegligible parts of the population in certain Member States.

However, long before the war, economic sanctions were part of the EU’s “traditional” foreign policy toolbox. Therefore, it more so interesting to note that the EU now wishes to go beyond its usual framework of action, to attempt to develop a foreign and security policy that asserts itself by articulating the tools it has at its disposal. To achieve this objective, the institutions have played a considerable representative role since the beginning of the war. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Josep Borell, Head of European Diplomacy, have thus multiplied their visits within the Union, but also directly to Ukraine. This may be a way to show that it is possible to reach agreement despite latent differences. We remember in particular the criticisms generated by the “sofagate” following the diplomatic visit of Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel to Ankara on April 6, 2021, leaving the President of the Commission to confine herself to a sofa away from the President of the Council and the Turkish Head of State. This protocol incident raised questions about the credibility of the role of representation of the EU institutions, highlighting the rivalries and disagreements that can exist between them, especially when they represent different logics, of community or intergovernmental integration.

Moreover, the complementarity of the foreign policies of certain member states and the Union has been reinforced. Thus, in the African tour of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in May 2022, one could detect an interweaving of German and European interests and positions. In this context of crisis, a blurring between national and European representation must therefore be highlighted. The most striking example is the combination of the functions of President of the French Republic and rotating presidency of the Council of the EU by Emmanuel Macron, who has multiplied diplomatic visits and declarations, without making a clear demarcation between his two roles. It remains to be seen whether the rotating presidency of the Council recently held by the Czech Republic since 1st July 2022 will confirm this trend. In addition to their role of representation, it is also a material complementarity that accompanies speeches and policies that must be noted. The European Peace Facility has thus made it possible to finance shipments of fuel and military equipment from member states to Ukraine.

Finally, the EU seems to be aware of the need to broaden its field of competence by adopting multisectoral policies. Some policies that were initiated before the beginning of the war are in fact a continuity and are part of decisions that consider established European priorities, both within and outside the framework of the conflict. The REPowerEU plan mentioned above is a striking example of the intersection between strategic choices and other interests, such as energy and the environment. This plan is in fact based on the objectives set by the draft European Green Pact, while adding to them objectives for reducing and even becoming independent of fossil fuel imports from Russia.

… which should not make us forget the underlying tension factors…

Faced with these different elements, it is difficult to doubt that the European Union is moving forward. These multiple decisions clearly highlight the need to show determination, strength, and unity, after times of incertitude. However, the phases of deepening and enlargement of the EU since its creation have always shown that they cannot be done without considering the diversity of national situations and interests. This context of crisis and urgency, in which the EU can anchor perspectives of strengthening and greater autonomy, can also be a risk factor, by occulting the subjects of internal and external tensions, which, far from having disappeared, seem to have been put aside, at least for the time of the war.

The Hungarian case alone can embody these ambiguities inherent in the EU. While the European countries were trying at the beginning of 2022 to agree on their positions regarding Russia, Viktor Orban visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 1st. The communicated content of their exchanges, added to the symbolism of the visit, clearly underlined the importance of relations between the two states. As the European authorities, the leaders of the Member States and the Hungarian opposition quickly condemned Viktor Orban’s behavior, the complexity of such a relationship between this Central European country and the EU could already be seen in the background, in a context of war on Europe’s borders. And this Hungarian ambiguity does not seem to concern only its leaders, since a majority of the country’s voters reconfirmed Viktor Orban and his party at the ballot box during the legislative elections of April 3rd 2022. In response to this, on April 5th, the European Commission announced that it was launching the procedure to activate the conditionality mechanism on the rule of law, allowing the suspension of the payment of funds from the European recovery plan adopted in 2020 in the face of the consequences of the COVID-19 health crisis. As the procedure is lengthy and must be voted on by 15 out of 27 states, the situation is not likely to be resolved, forcing the EU to make difficult compromises. Finally, a new manifestation of this diplomatic tension between Hungary and the EU was felt on June 17th, when Budapest lodged its veto in the EU Council on the introduction of a minimum 15% tax on multinationals. This text on taxation in the EU requires unanimity, and had already been blocked by Poland, which finally had given its green light. This initiative had previously been adopted by 136 countries of the OECD at the end of 2021, a declaration which was joined by Hungary at the time. This new episode shows the more diplomatic character of Budapest’s veto on a bill that was eagerly awaited by some EU leaders, which would have allowed the EU to be a pioneer in the application of the declaration.

Hungary’s situation is not the only one to reveal the divergences within the EU, and the profound differences that exist between member states. The famous dependence on fossil fuel imports may also be a more transversal example of these disparities, despite the voluntary nature of European plans. The three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – were the quickest to claim independence from Russian gas on April 2nd, leaving aside their own difficulties in making it a reality over a longer period. Indeed, the Baltic States do not all have the same energy situation and the consequences of the cessation of Russian gas supplies do not have the same impact on each of them. Thus, only Lithuania seemed at the time of the announcement to be able to make this decision permanent, particularly because of the inauguration of its LNG carrier Independence in 2014. For Latvia and Estonia to be able to assume their energy choices in the longer term, questions of major investment and diversification of supplies must therefore be addressed. Despite the Baltic States’ invitation to other EU members to follow suit, none of the sanction’s packages taken to date have been able to overcome Europe’s structural dependence on Russian gas supplies, and decisions on fossil fuels have ultimately focused only on coal and oil. Even on oil, the sanctions taken at the Council level were adopted in a compromise, to lift the potential veto of Hungary, which is still 65% dependent on oil imports from Russia. Faced with this situation, the EU can hardly claim to be moving forward by ignoring these tension factors, which may still be detrimental to its functioning and to the consolidation of its position in the long term.

… at the risk of reinforcing divergences

between member states and weakening its institutions.

It is by acting urgently and in a forced march that the EU is taking the risk of reinforcing divergences and weakening its institutions, by allowing the relevance and legitimacy of their decisions to be questioned. While it is crucial that the EU be able to position itself in the face of the Russian invasion as it is doing, while expanding its framework for action, it could also get into trouble by giving in to precipitation, pushing it into forms of complacency. Compromise being in the very DNA of the EU, due to the need for permanent dialogue between institutions, Member States and each other, it is necessary to identify how certain recent events could push the EU to make concessions on its founding values and principles, which should nevertheless serve as a compass in the recompositing of power relations that this Ukrainian conflict brings with it.

In this sense, the first signals can already be underlined and should give cause for alarm. On June 6th, 2022, MEPs from the liberal Renew group called for a vote of no confidence in the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. This threat follows the “green light” given by the institution to the payment of European funds to Poland, which has been blocked for a year because of the highly controversial reform of its judicial system – pointed out as a new manifestation of the decline of the rule of law in the country – and a decision of December 2021 questioning the primacy of Community law over national law. Many MEPs and even members of the Commission had warned the institution of the consequences of such a decision. Poland is still particularly criticized for the measures it has taken to show its “white coat”, which are largely insufficient. If these inter-institutional tensions seem to originate outside the context of the war in Ukraine, how can such a reversal of the Commission’s position towards a state with which relations tend to deteriorate more and more be interpreted, other than in the face of the absolute necessity to strengthen the ties between member states within the European Union. The EU seems to be forced to put aside its common values to show the realism that a context of war on its borders may require – the Polish borders being highly strategic in the case of a conflict with Russia.

While it is necessary to remain firm in its founding values, it is also necessary at the same time to maintain this culture of dialogue and compromise, at the risk of rushing certain member states. In this respect, hasty or emotional reactions can represent a major risk for institutional processes that require time. It is in this logic that we can consider the decision given by the European Council at the end of June 2022 to grant candidate status to the European Union to Ukraine and Moldova. Before the war, as during it, opinions are however very mixed as to the ability, especially of Ukraine, to meet the criteria for membership, as well as those of the EU, to assume the weight of new entries into its midst. This is a welcome attitude to play the card of a Europe that is united in the face of the crisis, but it can also conceal the real problems and frustrations that this accession process raises, for some member states, for the other candidate countries, but also perhaps in the future for the two countries concerned.

In conclusion, the situation of the EU and the state of interrelationships amongst the institutions and its member states cannot in fact be summed up in a strengthening of the latter. The Union will have to keep in mind its own flaws and the internal tension factors that could undermine it if it is content to move forward at a forced pace in this crisis context. It must be bared in mind that by multiplying its frameworks for action, it also multiplies the possibilities of tensions between States, faced with the risks that they will protect their national interests first and foremost. Its history and recent events should serve as a lesson for the EU, which is in fact forced to compromise. However, compromise is not surrender, neither internally nor externally. The maintenance of the rule of law within its member states must not be left aside, even in the face of war. At the same time, the possibility of a democratic deepening of the institutions seems to resonate, as shown by the recent request of the European Parliament to benefit from a direct right of initiative. It therefore seems appropriate not to rush decisions, even if it means creating new tools that are better adapted to the emergency. The proposal for a European political community mentioned by Emmanuel Macron on May 9th 2022 before the European Parliament – without being exempt from criticism or skepticism on the part of some – could be a path towards efficiency. Such a project would make it possible to reach a wider circle of states on the continent by bringing them closer together, outside the framework of the EU. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to express his interest in this initiative on the sidelines of the G7 summit in June 2022.

This could be a way for the EU to temper and give itself some breathing space, to ensure that it consolidates the position it is gradually taking. The new Strategic Concept adopted at the NATO summit in Madrid recognizes the important complementarity between the Alliance and the EU, perhaps proof of the position of strength to which it seems to be entitled. It is therefore essential that it be able to maintain coherence between values, discourse, and actions in order to legitimize the place of European institutions in the eyes of the member states, as well as externally as relevant interlocutors in the EU’s relations with other states, especially the great powers, even allies.

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