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Jun 30, 2022

The EU’s Moment of Truth

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine shows that, now more than ever, the European Union needs to strengthen its capacity to act.  

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov at a main meeting room ahead of European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium June 23, 2022.
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Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the global consequences of the conflict are a moment of truth for Europe. After initially strong European responses, tensions are growing in the European Union, and familiar weaknesses are taking on new weight in the face of war. Germany’s unifying force, which is all the more important in an unsettled EU, is declining. Europe must not only adapt the governance of its own continent to the new reality, it must take a stronger global stance, and that is also because of the consequences of the war.

The EU has approved comprehensive sanctions packages faster than ever before, six since the beginning of the war. The phase out of fossil fuels imports from Russia to the EU is proceeding step by step, Europe is making itself more energy-independent and, together with like-minded partners around the world, is isolating Russia's national economy, its financial market, and parts of its political elite through sanctions. For Ukraine, the EU and its member states have mobilized humanitarian, financial and, above all, military aid amounting to €25 billion.

By early July 2022, 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the EU. Solidarity with those who left their country and those fighting on the ground is high. The Danes have shelved their “opt out” from EU security policy, in the midst of war French President Emmanuel Macron won his re-election more clearly than expected against the extreme right challenger and Putin friend Marine Le Pen, and in Slovenia a populist with close ties to Russia was ousted. In Italy, plans for a European federation are being discussed, and the United Kingdom is committed to closer security cooperation with the EU. Europe seems to be standing together, and the partnership with the United States is closer than it has been for a long time.

And yet the war is causing divisions within the EU. The longer it lasts and the more expensive it becomes, the further they will deepen. Hungary’s handling of the EU oil embargo has given a taste of what might be to come. Until the last moment, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s veto threatened to make a common European response impossible, despite generous exemptions for Budapest. Rarely have politicians, such as German Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck or European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, shown their frustration with an EU member state so clearly, and rightly so.

The Visegrád Group has broken down over Orbán’s stance on the war and the appropriate response; the extension of the state of emergency imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated Hungary from the rest of the EU.

While EU member states are largely united in their condemnation of the criminal war, tensions are growing between Northern and Eastern European member states and the EU’s founding members over the right policy toward Ukraine and Russia. This includes the question of arms deliveries, as much as whether or not the German chancellor or the French president should continue talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Chancellor Olaf Scholz initiated a U-turn on German Russia policy on February 27 2022, in a historical speech to the German parliament, there is a lack of trust. Germany’s implementation of announced arms deliveries is perceived as hesitant, and at moments, there have been fears that Berlin might start negotiating with Moscow over Kyiv’s head.

Russia’s war against Ukraine and the threat that further Eastern neighbors, and eventually NATO territory, could also be attacked arguably offer very strong reasons to strengthen Europeans’ defense capabilities and to move forward with the structured defense cooperation, PESCO, launched in response to Donald Trump’s anti-transatlantic presidency and his questioning of the strategic relevance of NATO.

And yet, EU defense cooperation has slipped down the list of priorities—at least from a Central and Eastern European perspective. The United States alongside the United Kingdom is more present in its role as security guarantor than in previous years, through arms deliveries to Ukraine and the allied cooperation required for this. Even before the hot war began, the transatlantic relationship had become closer than it had been for decades. Intelligence sharing within the alliance as Russian troops built up on the Eastern border of Ukraine and the diplomatic commitment on the part of the Biden administration helped foster a more realistic view in Germany and other European capitals of the danger posed by Russia and the readiness to respond quickly and comprehensively.

As US President Joe Biden announced at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, “The United States is back.” Although Washington continues to see China as the real strategic challenge, the US has committed $43 billion to Ukraine since the start of the war. For the US, in addition to preserving Ukrainian sovereignty, the focus is on strategically weakening Russia so it cannot wage further wars of this kind, as part of a policy to strengthen the liberal world order and democracies.

However, the domestic situation may weaken the US government's external ability to act should the Republicans win a majority in both houses of Congress in November. Judging by recent experience, economic policy measures may be blocked. If Congress does not pass legislation to service the debt, the creditworthiness of the US government will suffer in an already very difficult economic environment. From 2025 onward, Europe could even lose the transatlantic partner it now relies on heavily, should Biden be replaced by Donald Trump or a similarly minded politician.

Enlargement Put to the Test

Europe will have to assume more international responsibility—and certainly with regard to neighboring territories. EU’s enlargement policy is put to the test. With the invasion of Ukraine, the lack of progress in the accession process for Balkan countries since 2013 has become a geopolitical risk. Some of the candidates have been waiting for almost 20 years to get closer to EU admission, while Russia and China seek to expand their influence.

Two years ago, the European Commission revised the accession process to make it more credible, predictable, and dynamic. Yet things are not really moving forward: Albania and North Macedonia have made progress recognized by the commissionand yet the vetoes of individual EU member states in early July 2022 were still preventing the start of accession talks. Montenegro and Serbia have meanwhile advanced in negotiations despite their mixed records on reform. The credibility and mobilizing power of the accession criteria have suffered, and political support for the necessary reforms has declined.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a direct impact on the Western Balkans, with significant Russian influence in the region, politically, through the instrumentalization of energy dependence, as well as socially due to disinformation via social media. In recent years, the Kremlin has been using unresolved conflicts in the region to its own strategic advantage. The EU must counteract this influence in order to prevent destabilization and the strengthening of anti-European forces in a region that is geographically surrounded by EU countries.

To restore the credibility of the conditions and the process, European Council unanimity for opening negotiations could be abolished. It is an important political signal that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia (with important caveats to meet) have been granted EU candidacy status, but the EU should in no way deviate from conditionality and reform expectations for accession candidates. At the same time, it should pursue policies with candidates and neighbors that help them deal with major security problems and other effects of war. These might include the opening up of EU energy policy, cybersecurity countermeasures, or deeper integration into the single market. After the end of hostilities, Ukraine’s reconstruction, the democratic consolidation of the traumatized country, and the fight against corruption must take center stage.

German Hesitation

Zeitenwende, the watershed moment we are experiencing, has enormous consequence, for Ukraine, for Europe, the transatlantic alliance, and globally. The German government’s top priority must be to tackle all of these challenges, including the global ones.

For that, Berlin will have to bring its EU partners along—which is not easy for two reasons. First, Germany’s initial hesitation on arms deliveries, as well as its reluctance to boycott oil and gas, have cost it trust and reduced its capacity to mobilize others. France, due to Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to engage with Putin in a “strategic dialogue,” is likewise seen with skepticism by Eastern European and Baltic governments. Differing perceptions, at least initially, of the Russian threat and the downplaying of security concerns in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have a broader impact on inner-European cohesion. If Berlin wants to further strengthen the EU in this situation, it must first make sure that mutual trust is strengthened. This will also help the EU to prepare for a transatlantic relationship that may soon become less reliable.

Second, Germany and Europe must transform their economic and social model much more profoundly than is currently being communicated politically. As recently as 2018, The Economist had a special issue entitled “Cool Germany.” The magazine presented a state that was socially more liberal, more self-confident in terms of foreign policy, and by far the most successful country in Europe economically—but whose success was also based on energy supplies from Russia that were around 20 percent cheaper than those exported to its Eastern European neighbors.

These interdependencies, not only with Russia but also with China, must be reduced in order to minimize risks—and in order to be able to act with sovereignty in foreign policy, with far-reaching consequences for the country’s economic model. This applies to the entire EU if it wants to stand united in the global conflict between systems, defend its interests and values, and gain room for maneuver in foreign policy.

In parallel, Europe must play a much stronger role in shaping responses to global challenges. The international order is under enormous pressure. The economic system was not repaired in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It has not been possible to fully vaccinate the world and deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic. The fact that a bold and just response to the climate crisis has yet to be found is an existential risk. In addition, Europe and the US are currently failing to mitigate the global consequences of Russia's war of aggression. Food, fuel, and financial supplies are at risk in more than 100 countries. Humanitarian disasters loom, and ideological opponents of the political West will use the situation to expand their influence and further weaken the international order.

The EU, and Germany as its leading power, now have a threefold task. The European Union must be consolidated and differentiated internally in such a way that it becomes more capable of action and more receptive to candidate states. It must become a stronger player and less dependent on the US in regard to its own neighboring territories, and finally, it must pay much more attention to global issues, for which it must build new partnerships. If Europe does not offer solutions, this will strengthen those who claim that multilateralism is at an end. But this is precisely what Germany and Europe need, and particularly now as a direct consequence of the war.

Daniela Schwarzer is Executive Director of the Open Society Foundations Europe and Central Asia.

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