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Mixed Signals on Ukraine

Mixed Signals on Ukraine

If there’s skepticism in some quarters about Ukraine joining the EU, that might just present an opportunity.

Dalibor Roháč

It is easy, and not entirely incorrect, to dismiss French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a broader “European political community” as a cynical ploy to deny Ukraine full EU membership. Simultaneously, the vague proposal gives Europeans an opportunity to grapple seriously with their continent’s diversity. There is, after all, a real tension between efforts to extend EU membership to a growing number of countries and the imperative of the union’s further deepening, which appears to be an important motivating force for Macron and his ilk.

First, however, let there be no mistake about the cynicism behind France’s reticence. While some East European leaders—Poland’s Andrzej Duda comes to mind—have made several trips to Kyiv since the beginning of the war, both Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appear more eager to call Vladimir Putin regularly than to pay a visit to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Neither of the two European powers have covered themselves in glory with their low-key military assistance to Ukraine, either. For all the talk of a “Zeitenwende,” Germany’s military aid, including the delivery of Gepard air defense tanks, is subject to constant delays—as if the German government were carefully hedging its bets.

Similarly, the Franco-German tandem is dragging its feet over Ukraine’s eventual membership in the EU. While the European Parliament is sanguine about Ukraine’s accession, the EU summit in Versailles offered carefully calibrated, noncommittal language about “strengthen[ing] our bonds and deepen[ing] our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path,” with no mention of actionable steps or deadlines. That approach, reminiscent of the lukewarm compromise adopted at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008, sets up both the Ukrainian citizenry and political elites for a sharp disappointment once the war is over, as Damir Marusic warns over at Wisdom of Crowds.

The notion that this reluctance is driven by fear of a looming axis between Kyiv and Warsaw that will displace, or will compete with, the Franco-German tandem for power in the EU is farfetched. The leverage of the latter two is related to their economic size and their role as the largest contributors to the EU budget—both of which are unlikely to be matched by a putative Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 2.0.

Perhaps most charitably, the resistance toward enlargement can be explained by the real trade-off between a widening and a deepening of the EU. For a large segment of West European elites, including Macron, the latter unambiguously trumps the former. To this, add the casual condescension in Berlin and Paris, which both see Eastern Europe as a hopelessly backward place, a source of sand in the EU’s decision-making gearbox, and as a drain on the bloc’s finances.

How should Eastern Europeans—and Americans, Brits, and Nordics—respond? One option is to hope that the Germans and the French eventually change their minds under pressure from the currently unfolding events and in the face of reasoned arguments from their East European partners.

Yet, if the basic parameters of strategic thinking in Berlin and Paris have not been fundamentally altered by the ongoing war in Ukraine, we should not be organizing our lives on the assumption of a just-around-the-corner fundamentally transformed Germany or France. Rhetoric aside, much of the evidence suggests that no deep change has taken place to date: the EU’s two central powers are likely to push Ukraine to a Minsk-like “compromise” sacrificing its sovereignty, in order to block the EU’s future enlargements to the east, and to seek eventual normalization of relations with Russia.

By doing so, however, both governments are unwittingly putting to rest any prospects of Europe’s “strategic autonomy.” To be sure, we will likely see more defense spending across the bloc, with the EU’s structures such as PESCO and the European Defence Fund playing a helpful role at the margins. Yet, given that Eastern Europeans are more likely to see eye-to-eye on the issue of Russia with the United States or the United Kingdom than with their EU partners, they are unlikely to enthusiastically embrace a common EU defense and security policy, the terms of which would be shaped primarily by Germany and France.

Given the asymmetry between extraordinarily generous military assistance to Ukraine by East European countries—amounting to a third of Estonia’s defense budget, for example—not to mention that coming from the United States, and the far more muted West European response, the argument for pooling defense resources and subjecting them to collective decision-making at EU-27 does not pass the laugh test.

Resurgence of the Russian threat, after all, has not led Sweden and Finland (both EU members in good standing) to bring up questions of the EU’s common security policy. Instead, it has prompted both to seek membership in NATO. For all the concerns about America’s reliability, especially if isolationist forces continue to gain strength in its domestic political life, there is no alternative to U.S. security guarantees.

It is worth dwelling on the reasons why, other than the might of the United States. The EU’s main problem is not simply the extremism of outlier countries such as Hungary, which could theoretically be overridden, as some imagine, by a move to qualified majority voting. The problem is, rather, the persistence of broader fissures on which the EU’s east and north, roughly speaking, clash with its west and south.

Such fissures cannot be wished away or eliminated by one side prevailing over the other. Countries that stand with Ukraine and want to see Russia unambiguously defeated have no choice but to work around Germany and France, joining forces with the United States and other non-members, such as Norway and the United Kingdom. Doing so will necessarily de-emphasize the role of the EU.

Because EU enlargements require unanimity, Ukraine (or Moldova or Georgia) will not be joining the EU unless the German and French governments expressly want it—which may well mean no membership, ever. That would be a sad outcome, one that should put on notice those who want Ukraine to succeed. International institutions are neither God-given nor made of stone. They are, just like commercial contracts, words on paper that can be renegotiated or superseded by other contracts.

Just as the United States can (and should) unilaterally extend treaty-based security guarantees to Ukraine that would be just as good as NATO membership, Nordics and Eastern Europeans do not have to await Brussels’ pleasure. They can open their labor markets to Ukrainians. They can introduce mutual recognition arrangements facilitating cross-border economic exchange. They can bring Ukraine into already existent energy infrastructure projects under the Three Seas Initiative. Simultaneously, they should push Brussels to extend to Ukraine membership in the single market and the Schengen Area, much like Switzerland or Norway, either through a bilateral super-deal or membership in the European Economic Area.

With enough political imagination and leadership, the ultimate outcome may not be disastrous. For one, Ukraine’s needs today are very different from those of the post-communist countries of the 1990s. While the country will have to fight corruption and strengthen its democratic institutions, it is far from obvious that the only way to do so is by sheepishly embracing the acquis communautaire. If anything, the Russian threat has concentrated minds in Kyiv on building a viable, strong, and prosperous state, in a way that European integration in the 1990s was never able to do, given the benign international conditions of the time.

Moreover, for far too long, the EU has operated under the assumption that European integration is a state-building exercise, a one-way street toward a future European federation. Such efforts, however, have led European elites to make risky bets that too often have clashed against the reality of Europe’s diversity, disagreements, and the continent’s rambling, unruly nature. If Macron and his ilk want to continue in those efforts within, say the eurozone, they can. Yet, coalitions of other European countries both inside and outside of the EU should be equally free to pursue (or not) partial integration in projects that fit their own preferences, including by forging deeper ties with Ukraine. If one wants to call the bundle of those project the “European political community,” so be it. Given Macron’s love of Ricoeurian contradiction and synthesis, creating a simultaneously tighter and looser union in Europe would be a fitting—and ultimately beneficial—institutional legacy of his presidency.

Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. He is author of Governing the EU in an Age of Division, due out this fall. Twitter: @DaliborRohac