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How the war in Ukraine transformed the EU

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a profound effect on the European Union, the response to which defined its trajectory.

Ukraine, EU, Russia, invasion, European Union
If Vladimir Putin thought he could remove pawns from the European chessboard, he instead found himself held back by his unit (M-Production/shutterstock.com)

During the pandemic, the European Union rediscovered the “Jean Monnétien‘the art of transforming a crisis into an opportunity for integration. This came together after the pandemic economic recovery with a repowered European Green Agenda. But as Europe and the world began to look away from the pandemic, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine.

Since then, the EU has responded politically, economically and in energy matters. It not only provided weapons and resources to Ukraine, but also accelerated steps for Ukraine to join the EU. But as the conflict now approaches its third year, how is the EU faring?

Political unity

When a crisis strikes and European countries are called upon to confront it, the recurring question is whether centripetal or centrifugal forces will prevail. Russia is a particularly polarizing issue for the EU. Northern and Eastern European countries have traditionally advocated a tougher stance, while Western and Southern states have pushed for cooperation. The tension between these two camps explains why Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military engagement in eastern Ukraine led the EU to make a decision. two-way approach sanctions and selective engagement.

When full-scale war began, many feared that divisive forces would eventually gain the upper hand. They may have anticipated a moment of unity from the start, when the shock of the Russian invasion and fear of Ukrainian resistance galvanized joint European action, but they feared it would not come. would dissipate as the months dragged on and Europe recovered from the economic, energy and humanitarian costs of the war.


These fears have proven unfounded as the EU has marshaled and maintained a united political response, which is becoming more unified, not less, as the war progresses. EU member states have so far unanimously agreed on 11 sanctions packages on Russia. And while in the first months of the war, the countries of Western Europe – notably France – spoke of the need for negotiations and triggered the anger of Northern and Eastern Europeans by insisting on the need not to humiliate the Russia, few people today believe that this is the right path to follow.

Some disagreements emerged. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary tried to exploit its veto power to obtain financial concessions and sanctions exemptions from the EU. But Orban’s maneuvers largely failed, with the European Commission resorting to a new form of economic policy. conditionality linked to the rule of law. Indeed, in December 2022, the commission withheld 22 billion euros in cohesion funds for Hungary until it fulfilled the conditions linked to judicial independence, academic freedom, LGBT+ rights and asylum system.

Energy and economic resilience

One of the main reasons why Europe has remained united until now is that it has weathered the storm of the energy crisis remarkably well. This helped avert what could have been a devastating economic recession on the continent.

By late spring 2022, the International Monetary Fund predicted a contraction of 3-5% in countries including the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia. At the start of the war, few would have bet that with the closure of Russian gas to Europe, the EU would have survived energetically, and therefore economically and politically.

Putin hoped that Europe bend and finally break on its energy needs, and this is precisely why it turned off the taps, at the cost of also harming Russia. As Robert Falkner explains, Europe was partly helped by exogenous factors such as a mild winter and sluggish Chinese growth, but the EU and its member states also put in place a set of key measures. They diversified their gas supplies, achieved their gas storage replenishment targets and developed a European energy platform to aggregate storage replenishment demand for the following winter.

They coordinated the reduction in demand for gas and electricity and achieved the targets they had set. And they accelerated the development of renewable energies, which now represent the leading source of electricity production in Europe. Despite the shift from gas to coal and oil, overall carbon dioxide emissions in Europe fell 2.5 percent in 2022. All this means that Europe, at least so far, has avoided the risk of recession and that, albeit slowly, its economy continues to grow.

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But the challenges don’t stop there. In two other areas the EU faces a daunting task. The first concerns enlargement. Although it was never officially interrupted, the EU enlargement process gradually came to a halt after the big bang of eastern enlargement in the early 2000s. With the exception of Croatia in 2013, no country has joined the EU in almost two decades.

The membership process has officially continued with the Western Balkans and Turkey, but it is increasingly characterized by a double farce: the candidate countries have largely pretended to reform, while the EU has pretended to integrate them. The EU was absorbed by its successive existential crises and generally believed that stability in its neighborhood would endure. The results were not great, but they were considered sufficient.

This illusion was shattered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It suddenly became clear that stability, although guaranteed within the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, cannot be taken for granted. on another side of the “border”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky applied for EU membership three days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of his country. Ukraine and Moldova are now recognized as candidate countries, while Georgia is now a potential candidate.

In the Western Balkans, Albania and North Macedonia opened accession negotiations, while Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized as a candidate. Under the aegis of the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, Serbia and Kosovo are moving towards a normalization of relations which would accelerate the European integration of the two countries, and the recent change of direction in Podgorica could relaunch the dynamic of enlargement in Montenegro.

All this does not yet mean a decisive revival of the EU’s accession policy and many problems remains to be resolved in the enlargement countries and in the EU with regard to the reform of its institutions and decision-making processes. However, it is becoming increasingly clear – both for EU member states and candidate countries – that non-enlargement could come at an extremely high cost. In simple terms, the status quo is an intolerably risky bet for European security.

Security and defense

The second challenge concerns security and defense more directly. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a contradiction. Europeans are finally taking security and defense more seriously, but paradoxically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly increased Europe’s dependence on the United States for its defense.

This is true in operational terms: without US military support for Ukraine, kyiv would likely have fallen, thereby endangering the entire European continent. This is also true in terms of defense capabilities. As Europeans deplete their stocks of military supplies, they must spend to replace them with what is available. These supplies often come from the United States rather than Europe. While European defense industrial projects are still being implemented, the majority of European defense spending is targeted at short-term solutions. This means in relative terms that Europe’s dependence on the US defense industry is increasing.

This is bad news for Europe. Transatlantic relations may currently be strong, but that could change after the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Europe’s greater dependence on the United States will also hamper its ability to chart its own course in the world, in particular vis-à-vis China, where European interests are distinct from those of the United States. While the United States views China as an economic competitor and systemic rival, Europe is more concerned about China’s ability to exploit European vulnerabilities to achieve strategic gains and interfere in European systems.

The challenges ahead

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine profoundly transforms Europe. The EU has responded to the challenge by implementing unprecedented measures in many policy areas. Some of these measures, notably the reform of the European energy market, will certainly make the EU stronger than it was before the war.

On other issues, such as enlargement, however, it remains to be seen whether the EU will make similar progress. When it comes to European defense, the challenge is even greater, given that, despite the importance of the measures taken by the EU, it seems unable to reverse the trend towards greater dependence on the United States . And for a union that wants and needs to play a bigger role on the world stage, this is undoubtedly bad news.

This first appeared on the EUROPP blog of the London School of Economics—ssee the author’s accompanying article at LSE Public Policy Reviewwhich will be included in a future book, Ukraine: the Russian war and the future of the world order (LSE Press, 2023)

Nathalie Tocci is director of Istituto Affari International. She served as special advisor to senior EU representatives Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell, writing the European Global Strategy and work towards its implementation. His latest book is A green and global Europe (Political press).

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