Ukraine crisis has seen the EU undergo a profound and rapid transformation

It was hard to keep up as bloc taboos were broken in quick succession this weekend

The EU underwent a profound transformation between the early hours of Friday and Sunday afternoon.

Overnight from Thursday to Friday was when the bloc's 27 national leaders heard direct appeals by video link from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, who stated plainly what they needed to save their country and their own lives.

Despite hearing this appeal, EU leaders could not go further than the steps that had already been worked out on the Ukraine crisis in co-ordination by their officials in the weeks and days in advance.

That's what collective work between 27 sovereign countries takes: ambassadors working day and night, legal experts, translators, constant back-and-forth between the European Commission and national capitals to figure out red lines. Drafts, revisions, alliances.

The package of sanctions the leaders approved on Friday was unprecedented. But it had already been overtaken by events.

With Zelenskiy’s declaration that Russian forces were coming to kill him and his family but that nevertheless he would stay in Ukraine, what the 27 had to announce already seemed inadequate.

Steps to protect national interests that had been taken weeks ago and ended up shaping the final decision on the measures – such as leaving out luxury goods, or diamonds – suddenly seemed grotesquely callous.

Worse, with the EU's member states along Russia's border warning that Vladimir Putin would not stop at Ukraine, the leaders' stance was prompting comparisons to inaction towards Adolf Hitler prior to the second World War.

And the EU leaders knew it. They said as much in their briefings to press afterwards: what was important for now was to agree what had already been prepared. More was to come.

Broken taboos

And come it did. It was hard to keep up as the taboos were broken hour after hour over the weekend. Germany to reverse years of policy with €100 billion for defence spending. The EU to buy weapons for the conflict. Militarily unaligned non-Nato member Sweden to send arms, including anti-tank launchers, to meet a request from Ukraine.

Once again a crisis had forged EU unity, and transformation.

Two key things had made it possible.

The first was that the Ukrainian government had held on. If Kyiv had already fallen in the first days, as many including probably Putin himself had expected, there would be very different facts on the ground.

The second was the revolution of public opinion across the EU. The transformation was visible everywhere: it was in the chat groups, it was in the tens of thousands marching on the streets, it was on the football terraces, in the windows of the homes lighting candles and flying Ukrainian flags.

There was profound anguish over the fate of the Ukrainians as the bombs began to fall and the tanks advanced. The defiant social media videos of Zelenskiy and his advisers, wry and brave, spoke directly to the EU public and many managed to transcend language.

And towards Moscow, there was fury. Positions by national EU governments taken to protect economic interests that were perfectly rational just days before were now the focus of rage and of shame.

Now the national leaders were willing to pay the price.

They went after Russian banks on Swift. They sought to freeze out the Russian central bank, interfering with its abilities to use its reserves. The EU broadened the definition of its sanctions to make it easier to hit the whole Kremlin coterie. Western countries jointly declared they would hunt down and seize the assets of regime crooks, enablers, and oligarchs.

The EU announced a collective shutdown of airspace to Russian planes, including private jets, risking retaliation that may disrupt travel to Asia. In a move once unthinkable, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen named state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik as propaganda and vowed they would be routed from the EU.

Armed assistance

And the EU agreed to provide armed assistance to Ukraine. The majority of the bloc’s member states had already declared they would send support to the Ukrainian army. The EU decision was to fund this collectively, from a one-off budget programme called the European Peace Facility only agreed last year.

National governments can now invoice this fund for reimbursements for arms purchases for Ukraine going back to January, with an overall ceiling of €450 million for such payments.

The State has used its “constructive abstention” in relation to this plan. It means that no Irish cash will go towards weapons, in line with long-held policy, while the Republic will be part of an associated but cordoned-off €50 million fund for non-lethal aid including medical supplies and PPE.

For some in Ireland, long uncomfortable with aspirations of common EU defence that are highly advanced in other countries, this move will go too far. For others, it will not go far enough in helping Ukraine.

In truth “constructive abstention” is a Goldilocks policy, specially designed by officials way back when to accommodate the Republic and one or two other member states.

The Irish Government could hardly make such a profound shift as to pay for weapons, given domestic sensitivities, without the debate being worked out at home. Neither would it want to prevent other EU member states from doing so, which would be a profound statement. It would isolate the State, and be seen as an extraordinary betrayal by eastern EU member states who steadfastly supported us during Brexit.

Vladimir Putin, who long sought to divide Europe, has achieved the reverse.