How the conflict in Ukraine will change the EU

The European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: CFP)

Despite the many successes of the European Union (EU), principal among them, its continued existence, is the largely universally appreciated consensus that it is an extremely slow-moving body. The reasons for this are myriad but chief among them is the fact that consensus on big policy decisions must be unanimous with every member of the 27 holding a veto.

For these reasons the coordinated response to the Ukraine conflict took many by surprise. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, speaking to The Economist, felt that "What we saw in the beginning of the war was the rise of the European Union as a powerful player that can bring change."

It is certainly true that the EU has felt emboldened by its new-found unity of purpose with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen trumpeting the galvanizing effect.

However, it has not taken long for cracks to emerge within the EU's unity. Sanctions are not an indiscriminate deterrent and while some member states have been calling for harsher sanctions over security fears, others are looking to the domestic impact, especially when it comes to energy security.

Kuleba continued, "What I see in the last ten days in the European Union is backsliding back to its normality where it cannot decide on strong and swift action."

Indeed, there is a schism between pragmatism and symbolism within the bloc. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was keen to sound a note of caution when telling the Bundestag that "Sanctions should not hurt European states harder than the Russian leadership."

This does not change the fact that the actions of the EU have been more decisive and rapid than many expected. While the conflict in Ukraine is likely to lead to a changed European Union, it has also underscored two fundamental weaknesses in the bloc's strategic autonomy and security.

First is the vulnerability of its energy security. Second is the dependence on the United States for the Union's defense.

On energy security, the EU relies on Russia for more than a third of its gas supply. To any nation or union, such a dependence on a single source carries great risk. The extent to which Europe is dependent on hydrocarbons also underscores the enormous strides which need to be taken to achieve climate goals across the region.

The issue of over-reliance on the U.S. for defense matters, meanwhile, is a long-running matter but one which did not receive due acknowledgement until 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as president.

Stall employees clean debris from their damaged store in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 15, 2022. (Photo: VCG)

The impact of the deterioration of a synergy between Brussels and Washington over foreign and defense affairs cannot be stated highly enough. It has forced the EU to prepare for a world where Europe takes a more muscular posture outside of the direct influence of the U.S. State Department.

This is a policy decision which is favored by French President Emmanuel Macron and the recently announced €100 billion ($110.2 billion) rise in German defense spending would also indicate this is the view from Berlin too.

The events in Ukraine bring conflict to the European mainland for the first time since World War II and while NATO remains the primary bulwark of defense, the need for Europe to be able to unilaterally defend itself if there isn't a sympathetic president in the White House has become increasingly keenly felt. This sentiment is exacerbated by President Joe Biden's approval ratings languishing at a new low of 40 percent.

Looking to the future, the ability to police waters and trade routes will also become increasingly important as Europe also shows continued economic independence from the U.S. and with whom it chooses to trade.

It is also a fact that the largest naval power in Europe, the United Kingdom, now lies outside of the EU, thus re-enforcing the need for a greater capacity to act independently.

While the EU may wish to seek greater strategic autonomy, this does not necessarily indicate a more hawkish posture. In many cases strategic autonomy could lead to better relations with countries like India and China where there is a divergence of opinion with Washington.

One of the major benefits of strategic autonomy is in determining how and with whom one wishes to trade. An EU galvanized in purpose and emboldened to act independently of, but in partnership with the U.S., is a vision EU leaders once aspired to but is now a more likely outcome as a consequence of events in Ukraine.