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A watershed moment in European history: Decision time for the EU

Fabian Zuleeg

Date: 24/02/2022
The war of aggression President Putin is waging against Ukraine, breaking international law and destabilising European security, is, first and foremost, a tragedy for the people of Ukraine. It is also a watershed moment in European history and will test the EU and liberal democracy more generally. The Union and its members will have to react swiftly and decisively, setting strong markers at today’s emergency meeting of the European Council.

Immediate consequences

Unfortunately, there is little the EU can do to stop Russia’s current military aggression in Ukraine. Whatever is being put in place now will not deter Moscow, and it is highly questionable whether it will lead to a reversal of any of the territorial gains Russia has made or will make in the near future. This should by no means deflect the EU27 from taking decisive actions – on the contrary. Starting with the end of Nord Stream 2, there must be painful sanctions that hit Russia where it hurts, particularly with respect to its ability to export energy and raw materials and the wealth of those close to the regime. But the EU must be realistic: in the end, politics will prevail over economics in Russia.

Sanctions will hurt Russia, but the nature of economic sanctions is that they will also hurt the EU and its member states. That is how sanctions work: to be credible, those who put the coercive measures in place must be willing to accept that this will have a negative effect on both sides. In order to make a difference, EU countries will have to be ready to bear the costs. The broader and stronger sanctions will be, the greater the effects on Moscow. Europe must be willing to take the pain. European leaders must engage with their citizens on this basic truth. It has to be done, and citizens must be made to understand that there is no alternative. And those member states and particularly vulnerable segments of our societies that will suffer a high economic price must be financially supported. This will not be an act of solidarity; it will be in the enlightened interest of all EU countries.

There will also be a need to construct a convincing support package for Ukraine, politically and economically. This will have to include considerations of how its democracy and civil society can be protected if they are no longer able to operate on Ukrainian territory.

Changing course

This watershed moment also implies that governments in some EU countries will have to communicate more clearly to their citizens that the appeasement logic has failed. It is now time to stand up to Russia’s and President Putin’s revisionist strategic choices. This includes reversing previous trends and policies. In particular, hard security matters. European countries will have to make good on their promises within NATO, like increasing defence and security spending. Strategically, the EU27 must do more. However we choose to frame it, there is a need for a decisive shift in how we approach defence and security in the EU, including the painful discussion on how to tackle its fragmented defence market.

Permacrisis and its consequences

But the implications go much further than this. We are in the age of permacrisis, and what is happening in the East will have interlinked repercussions across policy areas, in many cases aggravating the challenges already present. The EU will have to deal with these crises (and future crises) simultaneously, rather than shift its attention from one to the next.

It is precisely because we did not react sufficiently to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that we now find ourselves in an even more difficult situation. The EU27 can no longer afford to ignore the indisputable need to take more responsibility for their own security. The Union and its members have not drawn the right lessons from previous challenges to Europe’s regional order. In Sunday sermons, they have repeatedly declared their readiness to play a stronger role in international affairs. But come Monday, they were not ready to do whatever it took to get there. This time must be different.

The EU must start putting in place contingencies and prepare for the consequences that will inevitably follow. Priorities for today’s emergency European Council summit should include the following 5 calls-to-action.

  1. Preparing for Putin’s next steps. He will not stop with Ukraine, and previous crises have shown that it is best to always expect the worst to avoid the worst. This does not mean that Moscow is likely to attack a NATO country – although even that possibility should not be excluded. Europe needs to be in a heightened state of preparation, working very closely within the Alliance. But in any case, we already are in a longstanding dirty conflict, with Russia interfering in European democracy in numerous ways. These destabilisation tactics will only increase. As such, there should be a comprehensive package of commitments and measures, including on cybersecurity. Our democracies must defend themselves more robustly, including in cyberspace. Putin is also likely to further test the West’s resolve via NATO countries (e.g. incursions into airspace) and vulnerable European neighbours like Moldova. Strategic decisions on how the EU will deal with such challenges, and the potential consequences, are needed now.
  2. Preparing for the ‘weaponisation’ of refugees. All EU countries (as well as non-EU European countries) should strongly signal that they will welcome and accommodate war refugees across the continent. The EU should also put in place a generous support package for those countries on the frontline. But we also need to prepare for the possibility that Putin will aggravate the situation further by, for example, mixing in economic refugees from other countries or taking away identification documents. The EU will thus have to prepare for every eventuality.
  3. Dealing with the economic impact of the crisis, particularly on the energy markets. Additional pressure on gas prices is highly likely, which will feed into the already growing inflation and further pressure the European Central Bank to raise interest rates. This will have macroeconomic implications (i.e. lower growth, fiscal pressures) and distributional consequences, as not all the member states will be able to counter the negative economic effects. This will impact the EU’s green transition, risking the public acceptance of the need to shift to a more sustainable economy. There will have to be a comprehensive, trans-European package to cushion the impact of energy price increases and market volatility. Otherwise, the Union’s recovery and the green deal will be threatened.
  4. Drawing geopolitical and geoeconomic conclusions, particularly on the need for EU strategic autonomy. The current developments highlight that the global environment has become increasingly challenging for the European Union. Europe will have to address its vulnerabilities, especially in terms of technology and energy. This must be done simultaneously, at the EU level, and will require a more proactive European industrial policy. It will also mean that the Union has to collectively find ways of directing significant amounts of investment into critical future technologies, going beyond rhetoric and accepting the inherent trade-offs.
  5. Acting in unity and avoiding fragmentation. Putin wants a weak, divided and fragmented EU, an agenda he shares (and has actively supported) with right-wing populists. The EU27 should do its best to remain united. However, if some governments are not ready to support the Union’s response to this crisis, there will need to be political and economic consequences for those EU member states that block progress. In some areas, this might necessitate the use of enhanced cooperation or intergovernmental mechanisms to avoid the overall response being blocked by a reluctant member state.

The highest possible stakes

None of these actions resolves the situation, and more will have to be done – much more. The EU and its members are now called upon to respond decisively. Dealing with conflict in Europe was the driver of its creation. It must now become, once again, the decisive tool Europeans use to counter this grave threat. If the EU fails, it is not only European institutions that are on the line; it is about the survival of independent liberal democracies in Europe, that can and will be able to stand up to geopolitical bullies.

Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive of the EPC.

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