Ukraine: a reality check for EU

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended Europe’s security order, with many observers calling it a turning point for the European Union. In a recent study we contend, however, that the EU’s response has been less a turning point and more of an epiphany, providing a reality check for the union and its member states about how far European foreign policy co-operation has evolved in recent decades.

The EU’s response to the invasion highlights the potential of its foreign-policy system to enact meaningful collective diplomacy. It has imposed an extensive range of trade, financial and individually-targeted sanctions against named individuals. It has implemented a variety of macro-financial and other financial-support measures, including assistance to refugees within and beyond Ukraine’s borders. Most notably, it has provided a €2.5 billion financial support package for direct military assistance to Ukraine, using the recently created European Peace Facility.

Alongside these measures, at an informal meeting in Versailles in March 2022, EU leaders agreed on the need to decrease Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and to strengthen their defence capacity. Markedly, the invasion has also generated a major reconsideration of the future size of the EU, with Ukraine now embarked on the process to become a candidate for membership (alongside Georgia and Moldova).

‘Geopolitical awakening’

The speed and extent of the union’s response has attracted considerable commentary. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative, even characterised it as a ‘geopolitical awakening’. Certainly, it appears to have been a cathartic moment both for the EU collectively and member states individually—most notably Germany.

The contrast between the EU’s reaction to Russia’s offensive against Ukraine and its response to the earlier invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 is stark. In the period since Russia’s invasion, there has been a greater level of collective EU response. The scale and scope of Russia’s actions—not least as the culmination of an extended pattern of hostility against other European states since the invasion of Georgia in 2008—has undoubtedly facilitated a shifting EU perspective on its largest neighbour.

There have been other demonstrations of the added value of a collective ability to act and of standing together, in the cases of ‘Brexit’ and the pandemic. These experiences have further strengthened the commonality of purpose embodied in EU foreign-policy co-operation, even if not necessarily commonality (or effectiveness) in outcomes. Unlike the previous past major challenges to collective EU foreign policy, such as the wars in former Yugoslavia, Iraq or Syria, the drive towards a collective responsibility to act on Ukraine since February 2022 has been inescapable.

A reality check

Russia’s war on Ukraine has acted as an EU foreign-policy epiphany in two important senses. First, the nature of Russia’s violation of the European security order has made the absence of a collective EU policy response unthinkable. The EU, by necessity, has had to create a timely foreign-policy reaction, with lack of a collective position not an option. Secondly, as Russia is deeply intertwined with the member states’ economies, societies and security order, it has required an EU response across a broad range of policy areas—encompassing trade, energy, asylum and immigration, and enlargement and neighbourhood policies—to an unprecedented degree.

Moreover, the egregious nature of Russia’s actions on the Ukrainian state and society has impinged directly on the EU’s operation as a political community, by eliciting a strong reaction against Vladimir Putin’s regime within and across member states. This has further heightened the sense of the need for a collective response.

However, while the member states’ responses certainly demonstrate that, when they wish, they have significant capacity for collective foreign-policy action, the EU’s response is less a turning point and more a reality check: this extreme challenge shows how far, for all its faults and failings, European foreign-policy co-operation has evolved since 1970.

The EU’s response to the invasion requires consideration of the over half a century of intensified foreign-policy co-operation and the development of ‘a collective European responsibility to act’. The member states’ collective foreign-policy response to Russia’s war on Ukraine is comprehensible by the actions of the Putin regime, but it is not fully explicable without understanding that it is underpinned by a norm over 50 years in the making.

This first appeared on the London School of Economics EUROPP blog and then on Social Europe