Europe’s Watershed Moment
In moving to help Ukraine and eventually accept it as a member, the European Union has taken a consequential step.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
“Slava Ukraini!” Olaf Scholz declaring “Glory to Ukraine” in the local language when wrapping up his statement gave it quite an emotional touch, at least considering the German chancellor’s famous dryness.
Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Scholz at long last had found his way to Kyiv to bring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the news that the four leaders supported granting Ukraine European Union candidate status, after some initial hesitation in Paris and Berlin. Their visit also sent a strong signal of support at a crucial time, when Ukraine’s incredibly brave defenders were struggling to hold the line against those fighting Russia’s criminal, atrocious war.
And so it came to pass a week later: The European Council, on the evening of June 23, told Ukraine—as well as Moldova, and also Georgia under certain preconditions—that it was welcome in the European Union.
It’s a big step. After all the talk of “a geopolitical EU,” it is now actually happening. Helping Ukraine, including by promising to eventually make it a member as well as confronting President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, has united the European unique polity to an extent many did not think possible.
2022 is shaping up as a “watershed moment” not only for Germany, where Scholz originally declared a Zeitenwende, but one that affects the whole of Europe. As Miguel Otero-Iglesias writes from Spain, LINK the war is leading to Madrid experiencing a sort of watershed moment of its own, insofar as the country is leaving its reservations about the military behind. And with “the return of geopolitical tensions” in Central and Eastern Europe, Poland, too, is going through a Zeitenwende of sorts, write LINK Karolina Wigura and Jaroslav Kuisz, one which is changing the country’s role in Europe, even if the illiberal PiS government cannot be expected to change in other ways.
Handing out candidacy statuses is cheap for the EU, of course. Turkey has been an EU candidate since 1999, but today is probably further away from joining the European club than it has ever been. North Macedonia was granted the status in 2005 and has worked very hard to meet Brussels’ demands, but thanks to a French veto and Bulgarian blocking, official talks with the EU haven’t even started yet. So, it is clear that the EU enlargement process needs a rethink; as Czech diplomat Jaroslav Kurfürst told us in an interview, the EU can no longer leave countries in a “in a sort of geopolitical prison.” This, Kurfürst points out, only “increased the temptation for Russian imperialism to grasp as much territory from these countries as possible.”
The EU will need to do a number of things simultaneously. It will need to consolidate by getting real with eastward enlargement, including the six Western Balkan countries that left the European Council meeting empty-handed once more. At the same time, it needs to reform its ways to avoid getting thrown off course by a rogue member like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. And it needs to continue on the path on which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has set the EU more deftly than any of her predecessors—becoming an actor in world affairs.
The fact that von der Leyen and Scholz, who, until the end of the year, is chairing the G7, will jointly work on organizing “a Marshall Plan conference for Ukraine,” as Scholz announced at the G7 summit at Schloss Elmau on June 28, is a very good sign. At last, Europeans are taking on greater responsibility for making their continent more secure.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.