Brigid Laffan: Europe voices collective will and flexes muscle

EU proves to be member states’ geopolitical anchor in face of Ukrainian crisis

On February 24th, the international rules-based order ended. The tensions and cracks were evident for some time, but the unprovoked attack on Ukraine by Putin’s Russia was a line in the sand. We face a long period of uncertainty as the costs and consequences of the war are revealed.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholtz spoke, of a Zeitenwende, a watershed moment for Germany and the whole of Europe. It is certainly that and confronts the European Union and the wider Europe with a moment of truth. Will the EU meet this latest test? There are many who doubt that, finding it easier to suggest that EU is performative and not focused on outcomes. Those who doubted the collective will of the EU were wrong and have not been paying attention.

Because the EU is not a classical nation state endowed with what scholars call state capacity, there is a tendency even among academics to underestimate its growing robustness and to fail to capture just how much the EU has changed over the last long decade. It matters, given that Ireland is a member state, that we grasp the nature of the evolving beast. The concept of Collective Power Europe captures the transformation of the EU as a result of multiple crises.

EU collective power has two dimensions: the EU in action and the outcomes achieved by that action, the means and the ends. The power I describe here is the power to achieve, to project power, not hierarchical power or even relentless centralisation. Rather it is the power created by the EU – as a whole and the parts – to collectively agree and get things done. This is not Superpower Europe but Collective Power Europe, a Europe that can amass resources, develop policy and instruments and effect outcomes when it really matters.


Consistency and unity

This new EU has evolved from the relentless crises that confronted the EU since the euro zone crisis. The development has been full of fits and starts but all pointing to a union whose strapline should now be “Whatever It Takes”. The last three crises confronting the union show Collective Power Europe in action. It solidified around Brexit. The EU collectively framed what Brexit meant and there was remarkable consistency and unity around that frame for the last five years. The EU deployed process and built dedicated institutional nodes. It worked because there was continuous and intensive engagement by the commission with the member states and the European Parliament. Everyone was kept on board and told almost everything all of the time. The UK imagined an entirely different process, one in which they could divide and conquer and from an Irish perspective peel Ireland off from the 26.

EU collective power has two dimensions: the EU in action and the outcomes achieved by that action, the means and the ends

Collective Power Europe was on display again in response to the Covid crisis. The omens were not good at the beginning as the member states scrambled for PPE, ICU capacity and so on. It appeared as if life and death remained national. But by the March European Council, the leaders were saying that the EU would do whatever it takes. They started out with the toolkit they had but then understood that something big had to be done. The agenda shifted, driven by the eurogroup and the commission and we ended up in July with the largest financial package ever agreed by the EU, €1.8 trillion . Moreover, the Recovery and Resilience Fund would be funded by common borrowing, a major taboo. This was unimaginable in February of that same year.

External threat

So this brings us to the current crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a European country on the borders of the union. This presents the union with a major external threat, and geopolitical crises are not something the EU welcomes. The union has been struggling since Donald Trump’s election in the US in 2016 and the emergence of great power competition to respond to the emergence of a new more contested world. Debates about strategic autonomy and European sovereignty are, at their core, about the EU’s role in the world. Will the 21st-century union be a power or a plaything of the larger powers?

Faced with the war in Ukraine, the EU moved with remarkable speed to collectively respond and demonstrate geopolitical resolve. It worked across a remarkable range; sanctions which were quickly expanded, asylum, co-ordinated political statements and co-ordination with Washington and other powers. The EU budget is being used to purchase arms and military hardware for Ukraine, unimaginable before last week. The prospect of Ukraine being a candidate state is on the table. The collective power on display was matched by major shifts in some member states, most notably Germany, where the pillars of its post-war foreign policy fell one after the other. Finland and Sweden are openly debating Nato membership. And all of this happened since February 24th.

The EU has developed the organisational and institutional ability to get the leaders together at the drop of a hat

It is early days and the war in Ukraine could last a very long time with inevitable costs to the member states. However, the changes we have seen in the EU in response to crises are structural. The EU has developed the organisational and institutional ability to get the leaders together at the drop of a hat, to use the commission and the External Action Service as knowledge and co-ordination hubs and to achieve output in real time. As Ireland approaches 50 years since accession to the EU, it finds itself in a very different EU and international system. It is important within Ireland to continue to analyse and understand the strange political animal that is the EU. It is the country’s geopolitical anchor in the world.

Brigid Laffan is emeritus professor of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence