The unprecedented steps of the European Union can be explained – indeed, are justified – by the urgent need to support Ukraine and the high stakes for wider European security,
With war at its doorstep following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has demonstrated unity and resolve in its response. As Crisis Group laid out in its latest statement on the war, the EU, alongside Kyiv’s other Western allies, has helped Ukraine resist the invasion and raised the costs thereof to Russia, while keeping the door for dialogue open and reducing to the extent possible the risks of direct confrontation with Moscow. Maintaining efforts to end the bloodshed in Ukraine and managing the threat the war poses to Europe’s security as a whole – along the lines that Crisis Group described – will have to remain the EU’s foremost priority. The war is also accelerating transformations in the EU’s foreign policy as Brussels is forced to adjust to new geopolitical realities.
It is hard to overstate the leap that the EU and its member states have taken in response to the Russian aggression. Known for slow, timid foreign policy decision-making, often hampered by cumbersome procedure and internal division, the 27-member bloc reacted quickly, starting by levying against Moscow the strongest sanctions in its history and sending a surge of direct bilateral military assistance to Kyiv. Right up to the eve of the invasion, with Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border, member states were divided over the threat emanating from Moscow, what additional sanctions against Russia might entail and how much military aid to provide to Ukraine. Indeed, had European governments agreed upon and been able to communicate beforehand the scale of their response, that might show to Kremlin’s price of its invasion and would have actually deterred Moscow.
Amid a war that has become Europe’s biggest in decades, the EU and member states have thrown several longstanding policies overboard and taken steps that under normal circumstances would have met with strong opposition from various corners. These include decisions for the EU to finance for the first time the delivery of lethal weapons to a third country; to boost its defence cooperation in the face of new threat perceptions; to send (somewhat mixed) signals of openness to EU membership for the bloc’s eastern neighbors after years of enlargement fatigue; and to trigger, also for the first time, its 2001 Temporary Protection Directive, granting temporary residency to Ukrainian refugees. The EU’s move into new territory over Ukraine could create momentum toward a bolder EU foreign policy that lasts beyond the immediate response to this crisis.
But for that to happen in a positive way, the EU will have to answer complex questions, which have thus far been largely brushed aside while the EU is operating in crisis mode. These include dilemmas about the scale and purpose of its defence plans, the strategic use of large-scale sanctions, the necessary safeguards for the provision of lethal equipment, and the pros and cons of further EU enlargement, among others. The EU will have to tackle these questions head on if it wants to develop a more effective European foreign policy.
The EU’s decision to use the European Peace Facility (EPF) – a fund for military and defence support for third countries and coalitions that was established only a year ago – to finance delivery of lethal equipment to Ukraine is one of the major foreign policy shifts prompted by the war. Originally, the EPF was envisaged not as a tool to intervene in large-scale wars but as a way to help partner countries fight insurgents or other armed groups. Its use in Ukraine is the first time ever that the EU has funded the supply of weapons to a third country, let alone a country at war.
Although some member states are major arms exporters, the EU itself has no experience handling the risky implications of such military assistance. Previously, Brussels has agonised over whether to send much smaller amounts of non-lethal equipment to partner countries amid concerns about supporting militaries with poor human rights records and fears that equipment could fall into the wrong hands. When it came to assisting Kyiv, EU member states had taken up a large part of the past year negotiating a three-year EPF package worth €31 million to provide the Ukrainian army with non-lethal military, medical and logistics equipment.
The war has completely changed the EU’s approach. Within days of Russia’s 24 February invasion, the EU decided to spend €450 million in arms for Ukraine and an additional €50 million in non-lethal aid. Just two weeks later, the European Council doubled that initial commitment, bringing overall military aid to Ukraine to more than €1 billion. To coordinate assistance via the EPF, the EU’s defence structures have also taken on a new role in clearing Ukrainian requests and ensuring that European deliveries reach government forces. The significant cost sharing that resulted from the EPF mobilisation has sped up the delivery of member states’ military hardware to Ukraine.
A Stronger Focus on EU Hard Power
A greater emphasis on defence was already emerging among some European governments before the Russian invasion. The war in Ukraine has set in motion significant changes that will likely remain as building blocks for the EU’s future defence role, and maybe even gradually increase the EU’s ability to intervene as a military player in complementarity with NATO, a long-held ambition that has so far largely remained a mere aspiration. It may reinforce a trend in Europe to put much more stress on hard power – something that some European leaders, including EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and French President Emmanuel Macron, have wanted for some time Berlin’s abrupt shift in reaction to Russia’s invasion points in that direction as well. The taboos around weaponry in Germany were decades old and deeply felt: in January, as Russia built up its forces on the Ukrainian border, the German government came in for sharp criticism from Kyiv and its Western allies when it agreed to send only a field hospital and helmets for Ukrainian soldiers as support. Yet within days of the invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz changed tack, deciding to supply Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons, 500 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles and 500 Strela rockets from the Bundeswehr’s stockpile. More importantly, he accompanied this decision with the announcement that Berlin would invest €100 billion in German rearmament, which not only dispels its post-World War II skittishness about its military but also makes it the largest defence spender in the EU. Scholz’s 180-degree turn may have long-lasting consequences for the EU as Berlin appears less likely to keep putting the brakes on European defence integration and hard power solutions pushed by states like France.
Some implications of this paradigm shift are reflected in the Strategic Compass that the EU adopted on 21 March. Part strategy, part action plan, this document provides a shared threat analysis and greater direction for the bloc’s security and defence activities until 2030. In 2021, many Eastern European governments had blasted the document for downplaying the threats coming from Moscow. In light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the adopted text puts major emphasis on the dangers the Kremlin could pose to the EU and its member states. European leaders have also scaled up their original ambitions and agreed to reach several goals by 2025, such as the development of a 5,000 soldier “rapid deployment capacity” with contributions from various member states that, unlike the existing “battlegroups” (which are smaller units under national command on a rotation basis), will be under EU command. Alongside joint plans to develop high-tech military capabilities, more flexible decision-making will make it easier for coalitions of willing EU member states to conduct operations within the EU framework.
While expanding the EU’s military toolbox can certainly offer some benefits (such as increased interoperability between its forces, flexible arrangements for deployments alongside NATO’s, a better ability to jointly evacuate EU nationals from conflict zones) and appears in tune with an increasingly dangerous world, hard security instruments alone are not enough to resolve today’s complex crises and defend Europe’s interests. The EU will have to keep expectations of such forces realistic and make sure it balances the new competencies with the ever-growing need for robust conflict diplomacy and peacebuilding efforts.
The EU’s imposition of far-reaching economic, financial and trade sanctions on Russia – the toughest such penalties it has ever applied abroad – is another major departure for the bloc, which had previously been divided over the issue. The speed and scale of the measures surprised even some European decision-makers: although, broadly speaking, Western leaders had threatened “massive consequences” before Russia’s invasion, they had never specified what these would be. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on 24 February was such a jolt to Western capitals that they not only made good on the threats they had issued beforehand, but arguably went further than many had anticipated in raising the costs to Russia of its continued aggression.
At the same time, the EU will have to find ways to use the limited leverage that sanctions offer to best effect and develop ways to mitigate as much as possible their global fallout, linked to trade disruptions and the impact on energy and commodity prices, for example by ramping up food aid and providing targeted financial assistance to affected sectors in vulnerable countries. It should weigh the possible knock-on effect of not only its unprecedented measures to punish Russia but also foreign policy actions it may take elsewhere. Over past years, the EU has often reacted with (mostly targeted) sanctions when facing conflicts or crises, but usually with limited success in changing belligerents’ behaviour or altering the crisis trajectory, as in Syria, Myanmar or Nicaragua for instance. In a world of greater geopolitical competition and a possible long-term standoff with Moscow and its allies, the EU may be inclined to double down on the use of sanctions, which may appear as one of the few tools at their disposal
In response to the war in Ukraine, the EU has demonstrated that it can act decisively and unitedly, albeit in a major crisis with the potential to upend Europe’s own security. But behind the show of unity hides the inconvenient truth that Brussels has, more often than not, lacked the will and cohesion to act in its day-to-day foreign policy. It has been especially diffident in the periods of tension before crises break out. As the EU response to the war in Ukraine may allow Brussels to carve out a greater role in foreign, security and defence policy for itself, it should make sure that it surpasses this shortcoming and starts addressing the thorny questions that would come with such a role. It should take up this task with the same determination and unity it showed during the early days after Russia’s invasion.