March 03, 2022

Integrating Ukraine Can Help the EU Find Its Way Again

The European Union has abandoned its roots as it seeks a more traditional geopolitical role. Offering Ukraine the prospect of membership is what Ukrainians deserve, but it could also reinvigorate the bloc and help it re-animate and refresh its progressive model.

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President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, applauds after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's speech at the European Parliament special session to debate its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium March 1, 2022.
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The brutal and unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine has prompted a sea change in European security politics. Along with Germany’s era-changing “Sicherheitswende”(security transformation), the policy announcement that arguably garnered the most attention was that the European Union (EU) would provide Ukraine with €500 million in weapons and military aid.

In a joint press conference with EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described this a “a watershed moment” in the bloc’s history. Borrell added that to “provide arms—lethal arms, lethal assistance” meant that “another taboo has fallen.”

That the “European Peace Facility” is being used to support a non-EU member state at war, and that the bloc could muster the coherence to agree on this, are indeed remarkable developments by its usual standards. To some this may confirm the EU’s oft-stated, much mocked, intention to finally “get serious” about security and defense and become a real geopolitical player and “provider of security.”

In the long-term, however, another announcement from the European Commission president is likely to prove far more consequential—but would require the EU to head in the opposite direction, back to the roots of its historical success. Seemingly overturning nearly two decades of policy on the country—as well as the near-decade long freeze on enlargement—von der Leyen said of Ukraine: “They are one of us and we want them in.”

Given past prevaricationns this was a remarkable statement and, following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s call for Ukraine to be granted EU membership, a clear sign of support. Although officially designating Ukraine as a “candidate country” would require the approval of the EU-27, merely raising the possibility suggests that a U-turn could be in the offing. The informal summit of the general affairs council, convened by the French EU presidency, would be a great forum to confirm this new direction as the meeting will explicitly discuss both the “Ukrainian Crisis” and the protection of the “fundamental values of the European Union.”  

Such a paradigm shift would be most welcome. It is clearly what Ukrainians want—and need: EU membership would provide exactly the promise of a brighter future for them and their children that could sustain their resistance and give it still further meaning, salvaging a chance to thrive from the struggle to survive. It would also bolster their bargaining power in any future negotiations.

Yet the EU, its member states, citizens, and residents would be equal beneficiaries of such an approach. In recent years we have lost our way. Integrating Ukraine could help us find it again—and rediscover the EU’s ability to genuinely provide security for Europeans.

The Slide from Progressive to Protective Security 

The EU’s historical achievements were founded on deepening integration between its peoples and consensual enlargement, which gave it a uniquely creative geopolitical identity. It also allowed the bloc to provide genuinely deep and broad security for Europeans. The EU’s success lay in transforming seemingly structural conflicts in Europe by fostering the deep interconnection of nations as well as states. European integration went beyond “change through trade” to a fundamental entanglement that, through intensified and sustained people-to-people as well as business-to-business contacts, overcame mutual estrangement and took the danger out of difference.

Although conducted under NATO’s protection, this positive-sum transformation was achieved without hard power means. Rather it was brought about by the progressive intensification of interconnection and an optimistic outlook that saw—and sought—imaginative ways to transform long-perceived threats into opportunities. Crucially, it gave Europeans common prospects of brighter futures that they could believe in and thus were willing to work toward, together.

This is a story well told, including by the EU itself. Yet, rather than learning from its history, the EU has abandoned its roots and struck out for more traditional geopolitical territory, seeking to speak a “language of power” that it struggles to master and has been unable to back up in practice. This is the culmination of what EU expert Richard Youngs has termed the shift toward “protective security” that occurred as the EU became scared—and selfish. It has also undermined the EU’s non-security focused but actually security-providing progressive approach, which was previously its point of difference.

The name given to this turn is often linked to French President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to create “a Europe that protects” but the impulse predates the term of the current occupant of the Élysée. It began with the EU’s desire to become an overt “security” actor in the traditional sense, though in the early days this was still counterbalanced by a sense of the EU’s unique methods. Eschewing the imaginative geopolitics behind the single market and the Schengen zone and blind to the stunning success of its Eastern, post-communist enlargement, the EU seemed to become more wary of the world. Even as former European Commission President Romano Prodi talked of enlargement as “the greatest contribution to sustainable stability and security on the European continent that the EU ever made” this key modus operandi was grinding to a halt as expansion brought the bloc closer to what it considered “troubled areas.”

Prime among these was what became the EU’s “Eastern neighborhood”—a key site in which the bloc sought a geopolitical relevance it imagined itself to lack. Its turn to a supposedly more “realistic”—although in reality more limited and self-defeating—approach saw it develop an ambivalent attitude toward its neighbors. The EU repeatedly professed desires to help them reach the “European standards” that were claimed to express shared values and serve shared interests. However, these positive intentions were too often undercut by snide assessments of the neighbors’ failure to meet these standards, driven by lingering chauvinism and barely concealed behind a veneer of technocratic governance. The EU’s partnerships became increasingly imbalanced, self-serving relationships that let Ukrainians and others know—you are Eastern European, not EU-European. Not one of us.

A Bleak Worldview

The world outside the EU’s borders no longer seemed to be a site of opportunity, but rather a source of threat. The progressive, transformative, and cooperative state-building sides of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) waned as protective imperatives waxed. Building better societies in the neighborhood (and beyond) and encouraging people-to-people contacts with EU nations was sacrificed on the altar of stopping conflict spillovers, migration, and other supposed threats from reaching the European Union. Civilian CSDP increasingly blurred with Justice and Home Affairs and the activities of Frontex as part of a pervasive “internal-external security nexus” that further skewed the bloc’s perspective.

Europe’s well-documented series of crises chipped away further at the EU’s progressive outlook, but its increasingly protective stance only made things worse. Had they chosen to, the EU and its member states could easily (and productively) have collectively accommodated the refugees—and indeed the other migrants—who came knocking at their doors. Instead, with notable exceptions, they (unnecessarily) tried to “protect” themselves from inward migration, turning increased flows of people in need into a crisis. This attitude was already familiar to Ukrainians, whose labor mobility, even when “regular,” had long been treated with suspicion and styled as threatening. When you try and turn away from or block out the world, you estrange yourself from it and it seems ever more dangerous.

The protective tendency, which was also apparent in the “principled pragmatism” of 2016’s Global Strategy, has (hopefully) reached its apogee with the Strategic Compass, the EU’s new security strategy (due to be approved in March 2022), which includes a much heralded first common threat assessment. In fact, this presents the EU’s bleakest, least balanced worldview yet and positions it as a common or garden aspiring regional power, only less credible, coherent or capable. This makes all Europeans less, not more secure and further corrodes progressive integration. Protective security has not served Europeans, including Ukrainians, well. It’s time to retire that approach and for the EU to re-animate and refresh its progressive model.

Back to the Future

The benefits to Ukrainians of EU membership may seem obvious at least economically and (geo) politically. Yet the psycho-social effects may not be so well understood by Western Europeans. Ukrainians have long wondered why they have been excluded, with many having the feeling that the EU considers them the “Barbarians” at the gates of a Europe that they still feel is theirs as well. As the novelist Yuri Andrukhovych put it: “Whenever I want to go to Vienna, Warsaw, or Berlin, it feels the same way as if someone locked me out of the rooms in my own house.”

The 2017 visa liberalization helped, but the continued lack of a membership perspective, despite the sacrifices they had made in the “Euromaidan,” meant that many still felt like “2nd class” Europeans or even 2nd class people. Now, with Ukrainians manning the frontline of the fight against autocracy and authoritarianism, von der Leyen has belatedly woken up to the need to institutionally address this injustice: “You are one of us. You belong [with] us.”

What fewer leaders in Brussels and other European capitals may have yet realized is that this could also save the EU from its worst, protective impulses. If followed up, delivering on accession for Ukraine would require a reboot of the transformative, integrative, and creative approach that underpinned the EU’s provision of real security for Europeans, grounded in believably better futures. It won’t be able to do this if it keeps incompetently chasing illusory hard-power dreams. This is why it needs a clear division of labor with NATO.

Many will object that the EU has enough problems keeping its current members (not least Hungary and Poland) to its standards. Yet it has started to discover that prioritizing outcomes over process and developing enforcement mechanisms (for all members) can work well. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine seems to have clarified minds across Central and Eastern Europe, which the bloc should encourage and seize upon as a chance to catalyze a new virtuous cycle of convergence.

Integrating Ukraine would further energize this process (to assuage lingering doubts). It should also spark a new “big bang” of wider enlargement—finally honoring the EU’s oft-broken promises to the Western Balkans. A rethink of migration policy is also long overdue and, as Poland’s sudden willingness to open its borders to refugees and the EU’s wider waiving of asylum procedures shows, is possible. Cumulatively, these changes should also provide the platform from which to more reflexively addressing the darker (post-)colonial and xenophobic elements of European history and identity— that it dwells on less frequently—and ensuring we avoid reprising them in the present.

This is asking a lot but so was building and the EU in the first place—and then enlarging it. The EU is at its best when at its boldest and most progressive and Ukrainians have reminded us of what we can do —if we want to. In March, the month the EU is supposed to approve its Strategic Compass, it is now rumored that it will also discuss Ukraine’s candidacy for membership. It should approve the latter and ditch the former. It should also drop the D in CSDP and leave “hard security” and defense to NATO, upon the protection of which it continues to depend. The European Union has a different and equally vital, progressive security role to play, and it should concentrate on doing this with renewed vigor.

Benjamin Tallis is a Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin.

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