Europe United without a "United States of Europe" by Raphael Conte
How EU policies regarding the Ukraine conflict reflect a stronger and more united Europe than in the recent past
It is a common maxim that a common foe brings people together. This saying has been very true in the recent past with the stance of the European Union and continent vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin. Although the Ukraine conflict has been met with worldwide condemnation, the European case is truly exceptional. As President of the European Council Charles Michel has asserted, ‘just as Vladimir Putin thought that he would destroy European unity, exactly the opposite thing has happened’. Such sentiments have also been echoed by the press with headlines including, ‘How Putin made the EU great again’. In this article, I will explore the range of policies exemplifying this European reawakening, from sanctions, refugee support, and humanitarian aid, to the hitherto unprecedented military package from the European Union.
Sanctions have formed the bulwark of the global response to the Ukraine conflict. All of Europe, including many countries that are not part of the EU have by now closed their airspace to Russian aircraft. This is especially significant in cases of countries such as Switzerland, which has traditionally remained neutral. Germany has also suspended the certification of the completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a measure it had previously opposed. Additionally, the European Union has barred various Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, introduced measures to prevent the Russian Central Bank from utilising its currency reserves, prohibited the Russian state television network RT, and pledged to reduce the number of ‘golden passports’ sales, i.e. to hinder Russian individuals from obtaining European citizenship through investment. The EU has also sanctioned Belarus which has acted as a launchpad for the invasion of large parts of northern Ukraine, targeting individuals and industries like wood, steel, and potash. Measures against Belarus complement those of the UK and US. In an EU system, where the unanimity of the 27 Member States is required, these rapid and severe sanctions, impacting Russian media, oligarchs, finance, transport and energy, are ground-breaking. Especially in recent years, the EU has been troubled by certain countries blocking such measures. However, as European Council President Charles Michel has revealed, ‘it was less difficult than expected to have the support of Hungary’, the Member State with the now ex-Putin ally, Viktor Orban, at the helm.
Europe is also set to provide humanitarian support to Ukraine. The EU has announced an extra €90 million while helping to coordinate individual member state efforts, numbering 8 million medical and civilian protective supplies. Moreover, the EU has promised to accept refugees fleeing from the conflict with ‘open arms’, with the intention of allocating them rights to live and work for 3 years. Already, according to the UN and as of 3rd March, one million refugees have sought shelter abroad, but neighbouring countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania have rapidly responded, providing cash, accommodation and medical care, with Poland currently preparing to receive wounded Ukrainians. This generosity greatly contrasts with the disunity regarding Syrian refugees in 2015. Therefore, although there might be a racial and geographical element at play, Europe appears to have progressed in its strive for more unity.
Europe has also been united to an unprecedented extent in the military sphere. In a dramatic reversal of the EU’s traditional reliance on ‘soft power’, the EU itself has pledged military equipment to Ukraine. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has heralded it as a ‘watershed moment…[for the European Union] to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack’. Individual member states have supplemented this support. In contrast to its historic arms export ban, Germany has promised 1000 anti-tank arms and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Other EU member states, like the Netherlands and Belgium, have also announced the dispatch of Stinger SAMs and automatic weapons respectively. However, particularly revolutionary has been Germany’s increased commitment to defence spending. Often criticised for its failure to meet the 2% of GDP target set by NATO, recent days have seen new Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledging €100 billion and exceeding the 2% mark ‘from now on, year on year’. This highlights that Europe is militarily as well as politically and economically more united than for a long time.
However, this European unity may be a temporary phenomenon and requires further strengthening if it is to persist throughout the conflict. After all, the situation is still developing, and issues such as the humanitarian crisis remain in their early phases, and are yet to really affect Europeans beyond Ukraine’s neighbours. Similarly, although the sanctions have been effectual thus far, they will eventually hit European pockets. As Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre think tank insisted, ‘[Russia] do[es] have the ability to keep going for some time…so it means that the West will need to be very committed and very determined to keep pushing and pushing’. The fact that the EU may seek to increase sanctions further may also prove divisive. Such measures have already been suggested by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who stated that, ‘Europe continues buying so much Russian oil and gas. And [Vladimir Putin] is turning it into aggression, invasion’. However, as the impact of such measures would be disproportionate and heavily damage economies like that of Germany, who has already had to potentially sacrifice Nord Stream 2, the seeds for disunity have already been sown. To close with another saying: united we stand, divided we fall.