The decidedly mixed results for Ukraine at the European Council's end-of-2023 summit illustrate how much the European Union has become a security actor in its own right. While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Russia's closest ally in the EU, relented to allow Ukraine to start accession negotiations, those talks are likely to take years, if Kyiv is ultimately ever allowed into the bloc. Orbán blocked, however, the urgently required €50 billion in financial support for Ukraine. On December 14, 2023 he said the aid should only be released after the European Parliament elections this June. While Ukraine can hold out with a slight delay in funding as the EU has already approved some Ukraine aid in its budget, the new package includes aid from 2024 until 2027.
The EU money is crucial for Ukraine's defense, even though it is spent on items like state salaries, pensions, and social benefits. Ukraine spends all of its tax revenue—decimated because of the war—on its army and defense; Western aid largely covers the domestic items. Kyiv expects aid from the United States and Europe to plug over half of its $43 billion budget deficit in 2024. Without a steady supply of European budgetary aid, there would be an economic catastrophe that would inevitably threaten the war effort. According to the Kiel Institute for World Economics, European Union institutions are the largest provider of financial aid to Ukraine, at over €77 billion, and have provided some €5.6 billion in military aid, only behind the US, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
However, while Europeans see Russia as a security threat to the EU, they don't see the EU as an actor on the world stage. There are reasons for Europeans to believe this: The EU lacks its own standing army and while it has a mutual defense clause, it is actually NATO that provides a mutual defense pact, largely underwritten by the defense budget of the United States. The EU is still perceived as guaranteeing internal peace among states, rather than peace from external threats.
New Threat Perception
Since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a vast majority of Europeans view Russia as a security threat to the EU. According to the Eurobarometer survey released in December 2023, 78 percent overall agree that it is a threat, while 18 percent disagree. Those numbers are higher in several Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland and Lithuania, where 88 and 84 percent respectively view Russia as a threat, but are also relatively high in larger countries like Germany (79 percent) and France (70 percent). Even in Orbán's Hungary, 65 percent think that Russia is a security threat to the EU, while 33 percent disagree.
However, just 6 percent say that the EU's most important achievement is the "political and diplomatic influence of the EU in the rest of the world" and 14 percent say that it is its second-most, far behind the Single Market and internal peace. According to the Eurobarometer released in July 2023, just 6 percent of Europeans think the EU's “influence in the world” was one of the two most important issues facing the EU, ranking second-to-last among six answers.
Many Europeans also think the EU is weak relative to Moscow and Beijing. According to a separate Eurobarometer poll released in August 2023, 36 percent view EU influence in the world as stronger than Russia's, while 42 percent think that it is weaker. Even more say the EU is weaker relative to China: Just 23 percent say the EU is stronger, while 48 percent say it is weaker.
Until very recently, the EU was not regarded as a security actor at all. European integration accelerated after the end of the Cold War, when the EU lacked an external enemy. On May 1, 2004, 10 countries—most of them formerly of the “Eastern bloc”—joined in what became known as the "big bang" enlargement. This enlargement was seen in more economic than security terms. Entrance to the EU gave its new members access to the European Single Market and allowed the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services. What was less visible at the time—and for years after—was how much of a change in European security this would bring with it after Russia reemerged as an external enemy.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, France and Germany have largely adopted the skeptical attitudes toward Russia of their Central and Eastern European counterparts. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, in France, Germany, and Italy, the number of people who considered Russia a rival or an adversary jumped by around 30 percentage points, from a minority to a majority; the average of 11 EU member states surveyed jumped from 36 to 63 percent. In Poland, skepticism is more longstanding: 58 percent in 2021 thought that Russia was an adversary or a rival, which went up to 78 percent in 2023.
A Military Role
So far, however, the heightened threat perception has not resulted in sustained EU-wide efforts to increase Europe’s security. Indeed, the transformation of the EU into a security actor will likely only accelerate if Donald Trump is elected US president in 2024 and tries to pull the United States out of NATO, or substantially scale back US commitment. Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in his memoirs that he repeatedly had to talk Trump out of withdrawing from NATO when he worked for the president from 2018-19. Trump's 2024 campaign website contains one ominous sentence on NATO: "We have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally re-evaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”
If Trump returns to the White House, the EU will likely have to play a bigger role in European security as NATO's credibility will be diminished, and on Ukraine aid, as Trump would be far less likely to approve more. European publics, at least in the abstract, favor the EU taking a greater security role: according to the latest Eurobarometer, 79 percent say they support more cooperation on defense matters and 65 percent say the EU should spend more money on defense.
But the EU is already playing a bigger role on defense. The EU says it is the largest trainer of Ukrainian troops, training some 40,000 personnel by the end of 2023; it has financed around €5.5 billion in military assistance through the European Peace Facility, used to partly reimburse EU countries for bilateral donations. With a change in government in Poland now led by Donald Tusk, France, Germany, and Poland could join together on European security. That alliance would require Paris and Berlin treating Warsaw as an equal partner and sharing Poland's much more deeply rooted skepticism of Russia.
So in some ways, the European Union has already become a security actor, but many Europeans just do not know it yet. This is not the fault of European publics: European officials have barely, if at all, communicated this shift. It’s time they started to do so.
Luke Johnson is a freelance reporter living in Berlin, frequently writing about Eastern Europe.