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Ukraine is learning that symbolism, not substance, will define EU response

Those who view conflict as a watershed moment for EU may be sorely disappointed

In the end it took only 15 days for the real EU response to the war in Ukraine to become apparent. In barely two weeks, from the start of the Russian invasion to the recent European Council Summit, the soaring rhetoric of “standing with the Ukrainian people” was replaced by more prosaic political realities.

So while Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, pleaded for “big, historic solutions” to support Kyiv’s fight against Russia, what he actually got from European leaders was a mere acknowledgement of their “European aspirations”. As with the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the Georgia invasion of 2008 and even the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, all the EU is able to offer is “co-ordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian support”.

Those who view the Ukraine conflict as a watershed moment in the development of the EU may be sorely disappointed. Because, rather than heralding a new dawn of closer integration, what the Ukraine conflict actually illustrates is just how constrained the EU’s future actions are.

Beneath the veneer, the EU remains a half-finished economic union, not a meaningful foreign, defence or security pact.


Take Ukraine’s potential future membership of the EU. An expedited membership process is simply impossible given its destabilising effects upon the Western Balkans. There, North Macedonia and Albania have been stuck in accession hell for over a decade.

And given Russia and China’s increased influence in this region (particularly in Serbia, which also seeks EU membership) any attempt to fast-track Ukraine’s membership would likely be accompanied by significant unrest in these states. And that is not something the EU is willing to risk, no matter what the wider cost.

The result is an EU that – incredibly – continues to send billions of euros to Russia for gas and oil supplies (an estimated €12 billion since the start of the conflict)

The Ukraine conflict has also spawned much rhetoric about the EU reducing its energy dependencies on Russia. But, this is just old gas repackaged from its 2015 Energy Union proposals. Then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea launched a sweeping vista of energy diversification based on an unifying internal energy market and greater energy efficiency. Spooked by the fear of being cut off from Russian gas supplies and a spike in the oil price to over $110 a barrel, the EU proposed speedy, resolute action.

Remarkably, seven years and one ongoing Russian military invasion later, Europe is still addicted to Russian gas and has not appreciably reduced its dependency since 2015.

The result is an EU that – incredibly – continues to send billions of euros to Russia for gas and oil supplies (an estimated €12 billion and counting since the start of the conflict) notwithstanding the ongoing devastation of Ukraine.

Exempt from sanctions

Energy supplies remain exempt from EU sanctions. Germany, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently noted, has no intention of quenching its immediate thirst for its energy imports from the Kremlin.

The EU’s Energy Union proposals will, therefore, likely require at least a decade, if not significantly more, to be achieved in any meaningful way. For this period at least, much of Central and Eastern Europe (including Germany) will remain dependent on Russia as an energy supplier.

Even the EU’s laudable defence aspirations will soon meet the twin-pronged pushback of political expediency and financial reality. Driven by President Emmanuel Macron’s goal of greater “strategic autonomy”, the road to bolstering EU defence capabilities will be a rocky and very, very long-term one.

Nato, not the EU, will remain the foundation of the EU’s collective defence, particularly in central and eastern Europe (and possibly including previously neutral Finland and Sweden). But joint borrowing for greater defence expenditure is a non-runner at European Council level. After all, it is Western Europe (including Ireland) which pays the bills in Brussels.

Europe’s coming economic woes – high inflation, lower growth, already high debt levels – will keep the onus firmly on national governments for increased defence capabilities. Domestic unrest at slowing economies has a way of focusing minds at EU level.

The recently announced plan for €100 billion of extra spending on the German military won't make any difference to Ukraine, or the EU, before 2030

Even if significantly higher defence spending were implemented, it will take decades for this to be shaped into any meaningful European contour. The recently announced plan for €100 billion of extra spending on the German military won’t make any difference to Ukraine, or the EU, before 2030 (at the earliest). Given long-established German woes in military procurement and construction, it may not even make much of a difference at all.

For Ireland, the view that the Ukraine crisis will push the EU towards rapid integration in multiple policy areas is simplistic.

The devil really is in the detail.

Hopelessly divided

Because, despite the high-level rhetoric, the EU remains hopelessly divided regarding Ukraine’s future membership of the bloc, energy policy and its very own security policy.

And these divisions will likely be exacerbated the longer the conflict continues. So while Brussels’ impulse to support the Ukrainian government and its people is sincere, Kyiv is coming to understand the difference between the EU’s symbolism and its substance.