Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a profound effect on the European Union, whose response is defining its trajectory.
During the pandemic, the European Union rediscovered the ‘Jean Monnetian’ art of transforming a crisis into an opportunity for integration. It coupled post-pandemic economic recovery with a repowered European green agenda. But just as Europe and the world were beginning to lift their gaze from the pandemic, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine.
Since then, the EU has responded politically, economically and in relation to energy. It has not only supplied arms and resources to Ukraine but has also accelerated moves for Ukraine to join the EU. Yet with the conflict now approaching its third year, how is the EU faring?
When a crisis hits and European countries are called to address it, the perennial question is whether centripetal or centrifugal forces will prevail. Russia is a particularly polarising issue for the EU. Northern- and eastern-European countries have traditionally pushed for a tougher stance, while western and southern states used to press for co-operation. The tension between these two camps explains why Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military engagement in eastern Ukraine saw the EU take a two-track approach of sanctions and selective engagement.
When the full-scale war began, many feared that divisive forces would eventually gain the upper hand. They may have anticipated a moment of unity at the outset, when the shock of Russia’s invasion and awe at Ukrainian resistance galvanised joint European action, but feared that this would dissipate as the months dragged on and as Europe reeled from the economic, energy and humanitarian costs of war.
These fears have proved to be unfounded as the EU has mustered and maintained a united policy response that is becoming more unified, not less, as the war progresses. EU member states have so far unanimously agreed on 11 packages of sanctions on Russia. And while in the early months of the war, west-European countries—notably France—spoke of the need for negotiations and triggered the ire of north and east Europeans by insisting on the need for Russia not to be humiliated, there are few who now believe this is the right path to take.
Some disagreements have surfaced. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary tried to leverage the country’s veto power to extract both financial concessions and sanction exemptions from the EU. But Orban’s manoeuvrings have broadly failed, with the European Commission using a novel form of economic conditionality linked to the rule of law. Indeed, in December 2022, the commission held back €22 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary until it fulfils conditions related to judicial independence, academic freedom, LGBT+ rights and the asylum system.
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Energy and economic resilience
A major reason why Europe has remained united so far is because it has weathered the storm of the energy crisis remarkably well. This averted what could have been a devastating economic recession on the continent.
In late spring 2022, the International Monetary Fund had predicted a contraction of 3-5 per cent in countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia. When the war began, few would have bet on the fact that with Russian gas closed off to Europe, the EU would have survived energetically, and therefore economically and politically.
Putin expected Europe to bend and eventually break over its need for energy, which is precisely why he turned the taps off at the cost of hurting Russia too. As Robert Falkner explains, Europe was partly aided by exogenous factors such as a warm winter and sluggish Chinese growth, but the EU and its member states also put in place a set of key measures. They diversified their gas supplies, they met their targets for the refilling of gas storages and developed a European Energy Platform to aggregate demand for the refilling of storages for the following winter.
They co-ordinated the reduction of gas and electricity demand and met the targets they set themselves. And they accelerated the development of renewables, with these now representing the primary source of electricity generation in Europe. Notwithstanding the fuel switch from gas to coal and oil, overall carbon-dioxide emissions in Europe fell by 2.5 per cent in 2022. All this has meant that Europe, so far at least, has averted the risk of recession, and, albeit sluggishly, its economy continues to grow.
The challenges do not stop here, however. In two other areas, the EU faces a daunting task. The first is in relation to enlargement. While never formally halted, the EU’s enlargement process gradually ground to a halt after the big-bang eastern enlargement of the early 2000s. With the exception of Croatia in 2013, no country has entered the EU for almost two decades.
The accession process has formally continued with the western Balkans and Turkey, but it has been increasingly characterised by a double farce: candidate countries have largely pretended to reform, while the EU has pretended to integrate them. The EU has been absorbed by its successive existential crises and by and large thought that stability in its neighbourhood would hold. The results were not great, but they were believed to be good enough.
That illusion was shattered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly it became obvious that stability, while guaranteed within the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, cannot be taken for granted on the other side of the ‘frontier’. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, applied for EU membership three days into Russia’s large-scale invasion of his country. Now, Ukraine and Moldova are recognised as candidate countries, while Georgia is now a potential candidate.
In the western Balkans, Albania and North Macedonia have opened accession negotiations, while Bosnia and Herzegovina has been recognised as a candidate. Brokered by the EU high representative, Josep Borrell, Serbia and Kosovo are inching towards a normalisation of relations that would accelerate both countries’ European integration, and the recent change of leadership in Podgorica could revamp momentum for enlargement in Montenegro.
All this does not amount yet to a decisive revival of the EU’s accession policy, and plenty of problems remain to be solved in enlargement countries and in the EU as far as the reform of its institutions and decision-making processes are concerned. It is however becoming increasingly obvious—to EU member states and candidate countries alike—that there is potentially an extremely high cost to non-enlargement. Put simply, the status quo is an intolerably high-risk gamble for European security.
Security and defence
The second challenge relates more directly to security and defence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a contradiction. Europeans are finally taking security and defence more seriously, yet paradoxically Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drastically increased Europe’s dependence on the United States for its defence.
This is true in operational terms: without US military support for Ukraine, Kyiv would have likely fallen, putting at an unprecedented risk the entire European continent. It is also true in terms of defence capacities. As Europeans are depleting their stocks of military supplies, they must spend to replace them with what is available. These supplies are often sourced from the US rather than Europe. While European defence industrial projects are still being implemented, the bulk of European defence spending is being targeted at short-term fixes. This means in relative terms that Europe’s dependence on the US defence industry is increasing.
This is bad news for Europe. Transatlantic relations may currently be strong, but this could change following the 2024 US presidential election. Europe’s greater dependence on the US will also hamper its ability to chart its own way in the world, particularly in relation to China where European interests are distinct from those of the US. While the US views China as an economic competitor and systemic rival, Europe is more concerned by China’s ability to exploit European vulnerabilities to make strategic gains and interfere in European systems.
The challenges ahead
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is transforming Europe profoundly. The EU has risen to the challenge by implementing unprecedented measures across multiple policy areas. Some of these steps, notably the reform of Europe’s energy market, will certainly make the EU stronger than it was before the war.
On other issues, such as enlargement, it however remains to be seen whether the EU will make similar progress. On European defence the challenge is even greater, given that, notwithstanding the significance of the EU’s moves, it appears unable to reverse the trend of greater dependence on the US. And for a union that wants to, and must, play a stronger role on the global stage, this is undoubtedly bad news.
This first appeared on the EUROPP blog of the London School of Economics—see the author’s accompanying paper at LSE Public Policy Review, which will be included in a forthcoming book, Ukraine: Russia’s War and the Future of the Global Order (LSE Press, 2023)
Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali. She has been special adviser to the EU high representatives Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell, writing the European Global Strategy and working on its implementation. Her latest book is A Green and Global Europe (Polity Press).