Putin’s aggression brings Europe to transformative moment

Invasion of Ukraine makes EU becoming more rounded strategic actor more likely

The European Union, Nato and G7 are in overdrive as the world’s democracies respond to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s first large-scale war since the end of the second World War. The war dramatically ended the peace dividend of 1989, although that peace never extended to the Balkans. It may be foolhardy to conclude that it is a transformative moment because there is enormous uncertainty and contingency about the outcomes of this war.

I for one think that it is a transformative moment with profound implications for Europe’s security architecture, its political economy and the dynamic of European integration itself. The quality of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s leadership, the resolve of the Ukrainian army and the dignity and courage of the country’s people galvanised the world’s democracies and served as a reminder that democracy is precious, fragile and worth fighting for.

It has shaken Europe out of its complacency and graphically demonstrated that hard geopolitics are back. The EU responded to the invasion with extensive and tough sanctions that have been intensified with speed and used the temporary protection directive for the first time to ease the passage of millions of refugees fleeing the conflict.

Europe’s immediate response is one thing but what of the longer-term implications? Will the pressure for change and transformation be sustained? Three interconnected policy areas stand out: security, EU enlargement and Europe’s political economy, notably energy and climate change.

The EU struggled to deal with a world of great power competition and cracks in the institutions of global governance. Joseph Borrell, when he took over as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy in 2019, challenged the EU and member states to become a player, a geostrategic actor, or else be a playground for the world’s great powers. Since his election in 2017, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has persistently advocated for European sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Macron’s diagnosis had much to commend it but he struggled to gain traction. That has now changed.

The recent integration of Ukraine and Moldova in the European electricity grid offers a model of progressive but differentiated integration

Putin’s desire to rewrite the European order by force makes it far more likely that Europe will move beyond economics and trade to become a more rounded strategic actor. Across the member states, notably in Germany, defence expenditure is increasing. Finland and Sweden are actively discussing Nato membership and Denmark will hold a referendum on its security opt-out. Even in Ireland, suffering as it does from myopia about all things security, there is a tentative debate opening up. Nato has been reinvigorated by the war and is strengthening its eastern flank, not an outcome Putin would have desired.

Strategic plan

The EU just published its Strategic Compass, an action plan that aims to strengthen the bloc as a provider of security and defence. The plan seeks to complement Nato and this will remain the objective as long as the US remains steadfastly committed to European security. We are likely to witness a strengthening of formal and informal ties both between the EU and Nato. Both institutions have their headquarters in Brussels, after all. The pressures on the EU to become a more robust actor in security and defence are structural and will not dissipate.

Since the last enlargement in 2013, when Croatia joined the EU, the phrase “enlargement fatigue” became commonplace and there was a marked reluctance to make progress on enlargement to the western Balkans. The war in Ukraine has dramatically altered the politics of enlargement. Ukraine, followed rapidly by Moldova and Georgia, formally applied for membership with President Zelenskiy demanding fast-track membership. The European Council in Versailles clearly stated that “Ukraine belongs to our European family” and the European Commission has been asked to prepare an opinion on the application. There are mixed views on Ukrainian membership across the EU, with strongest support coming from the countries of east central Europe.

It is my expectation that if Ukraine survives the Russian onslaught, it will become a candidate state. Moreover, Ukraine is likely to trigger a reassessment of the enlargement process itself. I would expect a progressive integration of Ukraine into EU policymaking with intensive support to rebuild and strengthen Ukraine so that its choice for Europe is vindicated. The recent integration of Ukraine and Moldova in the European electricity grid offers a model of progressive but differentiated integration.

Europe is in for the long haul because it has to be. War is a driver of change and Europe owes it to Ukraine to offer it a home

There are those such as former MEP Andrew Duff who favour the development of new forms of membership or affiliation that could accommodate Ukraine or the UK, for example. I doubt Kyiv would favour this. Following the trauma of the war, Ukraine will want to take its place with its partners as a full member state. A trade-off between EU membership and neutrality may eventually be palatable to Moscow, although there is no evidence of this yet.

Russian oil and gas

Finally, the war in Ukraine is forcing Europe to face up to its dependence on Russian oil and gas; 40 per cent of Europe’s gas and 25 per cent of its oil is Russian. This poses acute challenges for those countries most reliant on Russian energy but Nord Stream 2, which Germany should never embarked on, is over. The compelling need to reduce energy dependency will accelerate the green transition. Pressure on Europe to cut off all Russian oil and gas will grow if the war is protracted or if Russia deploys chemical or biological weapons.

This is the EU’s geopolitical moment. It has already pushed the union and member states further and faster than anyone would have anticipated in early February. Some doubt the ability of the EU to remain united or sustain its support for Ukraine as the domestic implications of the war are felt. Europe is in for the long haul because it has to be. War is a driver of change and Europe owes it to Ukraine to offer it a home. In the longer term, the question of what to do about Russia will have to be confronted and here a Helsinki 2.0 should be explored, because Russia cannot be isolated forever. But that depends entirely on Russia. Only Russia can save itself.