The crisis in Ukraine is strengthening the EU

3 March 2022

12:30 AM

3 March 2022

12:30 AM

The EU has a knack for turning a crisis into an opportunity. The Eurozone crisis led to the centralisation of economic powers in Brussels; Brexit consolidated the Franco-German push for EU integration; and Covid became the pretext for EU funds being made dependent on members adhering to the ‘rule of law’ for the first time.

It’s looking likely that the bloc will repeat this trick with the war in Ukraine. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the EU was being mocked for its divisions: on Russian gas dependency, on proposed economic sanctions, and on political links with the Kremlin.

Now, the bloc is trumpeting its unity. And it has been remarkable to watch member states tear long-held national foreign policy priorities to shreds for the sake of a common stance on Ukraine.

The first signs of a sea change emerged before Vladimir Putin launched troops into Ukraine. As Russian forces massed at the Ukrainian border the Hungarian leader and staunch EU anti-federalist Viktor Orbán called for the ‘development of European military capabilities and a joint defence force.’

Orbán’s statement will have been music to the ears of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been pushing for a ‘true European army’ for years. It’s clear that throughout central Europe – a region long opposed to greater EU integration – the conflict in Ukraine has opened politicians’ eyes to the reality of Europe’s security dependency on America. For many in the Czech Republic, the sight of large US military convoys crossing the country en route to Slovakia last month was symbolic of Europe’s weakness, rather than Nato’s strength. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Sunday echoed Orbán’s speech, calling for the establishment of a ‘strong European army’ in response to the Russian threat. Similar realisations have impelled Germany to massively boost its defence budget.

The focus on strengthening defence capabilities has, inevitably, led to Brussels accumulating new powers; the EU announced that it would purchase and deliver weapons for the first time last weekend – a ‘quantum leap’ in its ability to intervene in international conflicts.

The EU’s federalists could not have imagined in their wildest dreams that the bloc would be taking steps towards becoming a significant military force in its own right. Even the member states which usually cause the bloc the most trouble are dropping their concerns amid the clamour for cohesion.

Hungary is a good example. The country has long been opposed to Ukraine’s integration into the western institutional order due to Kyiv’s alleged mistreatment of around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. Many of these ethnic Hungarians, living in territories ceded by Hungary at the Treaty of Trianon after the first world war, have dual Hungarian citizenship. But Ukraine has clamped down on their right to be educated in their mother tongue while tabling laws to exclude them from official positions.

Orbán’s Fidesz party has long argued that a country which violates the rights of minorities should not be allowed into Nato or the EU. But Budapest made an abrupt U-turn yesterday, backing calls for Ukraine to be granted EU membership.

Meanwhile in Poland – the bloc’s other troublemaker-in-chief – a dispute with Brussels over legal sovereignty is being quietly put to bed. The EU is considering making a deal over controversial elements of the Polish legal system, as the country looks to re-establish itself as a valued ally following the outbreak of conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.

As well as removing longstanding headaches for Brussels, member states’ sudden eagerness to drop their national concerns has also become an opportunity to consolidate the EU’s regulatory agenda.

In Brussels, even a debate on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a chance to bring up the EU’s emissions reduction strategy. During yesterday’s special European parliament session, Ursula von der Leyen – shortly after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky appeared on video – linked the fight against Russia to the bloc’s fight against climate change.

She portrayed the shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables as a security concern of the highest order, saying ‘every kilowatt-hour of electricity Europe generates from solar, wind, hydropower or biomass reduces our dependency on Russian gas.’

MEPs cheered the claim, but it will have left policymakers in central and eastern Europe – the countries most affected by the war in Ukraine – uncomfortable. Czech prime minister Petr Fiala has been completely united with the EU when it comes to Ukraine; but a nation completely reliant on Russian gas, and dependent on automotive manufacturing, will be wary of this acceleration of the EU’s green agenda.

Judging from von der Leyen’s tub-thumping address, the bloc won’t pay much heed to such concerns. Unprecedented unity over the war in Ukraine is the perfect opportunity for Brussels to double down on integration while dismissing member states’ now-discarded individual concerns as aberrations on the path towards closer union. The EU has a knack for turning crisis into opportunity – and the war in Ukraine is its greatest crisis yet.

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