Despite rising trouble elsewhere in the world, from Syria and Iraq to the South China Sea, Ukraine remains the defining challenge for the European Union. While some observers clearly see ISIS as a bigger threat because its advances in Mesopotamia have direct global consequences, the continuing crisis in Ukraine strikes at the heart of the European project.
The fact the some of the protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan square took to the streets with European flags is only the more visible reason for this. What is more important is that the crisis puts into question the core of European values: Democracy and the rule of law, spreading which is the rationale of the EU’s Enlargement and its toned-down Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy; the inviolability of borders as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975; and of course the broader international system with the United Nations and its central principles on the use of force.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued meddling in Eastern Ukraine have clearly violated these values. Still Europe – or more precisely, the EU and its member states – struggle to address this challenge appropriately. The policy responses so far – mainly a set of sanctions that do not really bite plus a lot of rhetorically strong declarations – appear half-hearted.
A superficial reading of the EU’s position would show the commercial interests of some member states as the main impediment to a more forceful reaction (without actually using force, of course). Be it dependence on Russian gas, or financial investment, or arms contracts, the list of countries in Europe that has an interest in good relations with Moscow is long.
However, looking only at the monetary side of things means missing the larger picture of the parameters influencing European decision-making. These include first and foremost the state of an EU still emerging from a financial and political crisis, but also the repercussions of the Arab Awakening degenerating into chaos and violence on the continent’s doorstep.
The former means that the EU will continue to make up its policy on the go, as it was not prepared for such a fundamental challenge to its own self-conception. The EU sees itself as a primarily benevolent actor that does not pursue traditional nation-state foreign policies but instead aims to conclude bilateral agreements with third countries. In particular the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) builds on the assumed mutual benefits between partner countries undergoing structural reforms (in their own interest as well as in exchange for EU benefits) and the EU establishing a ‘ring of well-governed countries‘ around it. One of the main criticisms of the handling of Ukraine in Brussels, i.e. that by following a technocratic rather than geopolitical approach it failed to foresee – and thus partly provoked – Russia’s reaction, only proves that the EU did not expect others to view its policies as malign.
More fundamentally, the EU learned from the financial crisis that it needed even more supranational integration, though it struggles to find out how to reconcile this with the interest of national bureaucracies or citizens. The last thing it needed in this situation was a challenge from its most powerful neighbour confronting it with 19th century sphere-of-influence behaviour.
This is not to deny that the EU aims to create its own zone of influence, much to the contrary. As stated above, the ENP’s clear aim is to move neighbouring countries closer to an EU model. Admittedly, this has never worked well in the Southern Mediterranean where the EU has consciously favoured stability over reform. Efforts to implement the ENP there have thus remained half-hearted, lest it upset the existing fragile order of those countries. That’s one reason why, in addition to its pre-occupation with its own very real debt crisis, the EU didn’t muster a stronger response to the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab World.
However, the EU’s approach presupposes that countries by themselves want to come under European influence. While this may sound self-aggrandising and the methods employed are surely debatable, this understanding is at the core of every Western approach to democratisation and the promotion of the rule of law. That’s why Russia’s old-fashioned, nationalistic approach to spheres of influence took the EU by surprise – although there was no shortage of warnings from analysts about this.
Worse than a restrained response to Russia’s land grab and continued destabilising of Ukraine would be a quick return to business as usual. This is where the EU’s oft-lambasted hesistancy to impose tougher economic and financial sanctions against Russia actually becomes an important policy. Namely one grounded in the belief that it is more important for the EU to remain united among its 28 members and together with the United States at a lower level of sanctions that it is prepared to maintain and slowly increase, than to push forward with divisive policies that it cannot sustain.
Resisting Russia’s aggression with a long term and unified approach while insisting on a diplomatic – i.e. political, not military – settlement of the conflict is the first half of Europe’s answer. Making its EaP policy more apt to the challenges of the Eastern neighbourhood must be the second part. This is a prime task for the EU’s incoming leadership in the fall of 2014. It must:
- Clarify the political goals of this policy, which continue to evolve around eventual EU membership;
- improve the tools available, which need to be closer to actual crisis management and traditional foreign policy than to the technocratic Enlargement policies from which they were derived ten years ago while at the same time focusing more on civil society involvement than the latter ever did;
- rearrange the EU’s institutional setup by placing the ENP directly under the authority of the next High Representative, collaborating closely with member states.
Such a changed approach would ensure that the European values claimed by the citizens of Ukraine and embodied in the EU’s neighbourhood policy actually bear fruit – in the interest of Europe as a whole.