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Perspectives: Ukraine crisis puts focus on EU’s symbolic value

The EU’s strong response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has surprised many. The whole crisis should serve as a reminder of the EU’s symbolic importance of bringing the continent together: EU trade and broader policy towards its neighbours now needs to reflect this.

The speed at which political positions have evolved in the days since Russian forces started their new invasion of Ukraine has made them difficult to track, still less analyse.

Sanctions reaching further than almost anyone expected and closure of most European airspace to Russian planes, with retaliatory measures, will have an economic impact that until last week would have dominated the debate, yet this week is scarcely mentioned.

Perhaps more importantly, with the speed of its movement the EU has restored a considerable amount of faith in its ability to act.

At times there have been the usual stories of certain member states resisting certain measures, but under considerable public pressure these have not blocked agreement.

It is at such a time of crisis that it is worth recalling the EU’s enormous value as the vision and symbol of wanting something better for the whole European continent. That while existing as a legal and political entity, the EU also has a moral authority as the institution that works to integrate countries and prevent conflict.

Assembling the package against Russia has been a broad effort, of the EU, UK, Canada, and US in particular. Yet for all the contributions of Canada and the UK, these will always be slightly in the shadow. Canada can never be ‘the land of the free’ as the UK is no longer be able to encourage the broadest integration of European countries in the EU.

There is a certain sense of giddy excitement in the EU right now about what has been achieved, but this needs to be tempered slightly. For while EU membership brings countries a huge bonus in their status, that has frequently not been reflected in their actions that too often recently have appeared to undermine the EU’s very symbolic power.

EU enlargement must be unstuck

One of the most important contributors to the power of the EU has been that any European country can aspire to join, providing they are adjudged by existing members to meet the relevant rules. The reality in recent years has however fallen far short of this aspiration, with the enlargement process slowed to such an extent that it appeared several member states would be happy for it to be stopped entirely.

Talk of accelerated procedures for future Ukrainian membership of the EU might well raise a wry smile in Albania. There an administration that has shown strong values for example in treatment of refugees from Afghanistan has still not seen the launch of accession talks, eight years after being declared a candidate country. Meanwhile ten years after accession negotiations started with Montenegro, only three of thirty-three chapters have been closed.

Underpinning such slow progress has been a broader largely hidden question of whether accession countries and newer member states really respect ‘European values’, though these are often only vaguely drawn. There have no doubt been problems with corruption and democracy, and a deeper unresolved issue as to the degree to which the accession process could prevent this.

The symbolic value of EU membership is real, but will dwindle if accession isn’t actually possible.

EU values agenda risks harming innocent countries

Until last week this European Commission’s agenda was dominated by the linked programmes of Green Deal, post-pandemic recovery, and open strategic autonomy. Their broad impact was going to be one of making it harder for third countries to trade with the EU, whether through for example enhanced state subsidies or carbon border adjustments.

Taken individually, the measures making up these programmes all have value. Collectively, they are intended to demonstrate that the EU can stand up to those who would break the rules, whether China or the US under president Donald Trump.

In doing so however they also seem likely to affect many others, from developing countries to neighbours. This is something which urgently needs to be re-examined.

Similar to enlargement, the EU’s free trade agreement agenda has become stuck in confusion as to whether it is about setting a high level of ‘conditionality’ or simply not wanting any more agreements.  If the EU’s values have meaning beyond the continent, this needs to be resolved in favour of the first, with the pending EU Mercosur and EU Chile agreements the most important test cases.

Agreements that appear to breach WTO rules, such as with the US over steel and aluminium, also need re-examination.

A powerful EU respects countries that are not members

The concept of ‘multi-speed Europe’, of different countries across the continent choosing the level of integration with which they feel comfortable, is another which has not really gone anywhere in recent years. That reflects a certain level of ambiguity within the proposal, as to whether it was supposed to be about EU membership or countries outside.

That doesn’t need to be resolved for a more fundamental step to be taken, for the EU to acknowledge that those countries which choose to be non-members for whatever reason are not to be punished or feared. While this is typically the officially stated approach, in reality relations with Switzerland and the UK in particular have been fraught, and those with Turkey, an accession candidate for over 20 years, often little better.

With all of these countries there are of course issues on both sides, but there also feels like a constant need for the EU to win, which brings forward a certain level of prickly defensiveness. This is unbecoming of the importance of the EU, whose member states should be seeing their privilege not just in economic terms.

After all, with the actions of the last few days, the EU has been saying that it isn’t all about delivering the best possible economic results, that there are some things which are more important. Of course, there is always going to be a careful balance to be struck, but it does seem that across a number of areas the Ukraine crisis should cause this should be re-examined.


 David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.

One Comment

  1. David Dzidzikashvili

    At the end of 1990s Putin became the leader of Russia by staging his first KGB style military operation – bombing Moscow apartment buildings to gain popularity and re-start the war in Chechnya. Putin killed his own innocent civilians, hundreds of Russians in order to boost his popularity and gather more war support. The US, EU and NATO should have seen his true face then, but decided to ignore Putin’s Chechnya war crimes and welcomed Putin to red carpet meetings and Bush even declared his trust in Putin. This further emboldened Putin who had suppressed all democratic processes internally in Russia and has successfully become a dictator and tyrant.

    Putin’s first test run to settle his political goals with military adventures and military operations was in Georgia in 2008. In August 2008 Putin attacked Georgia’s Samachablo and Abkhazian regions and successfully annexed territories of a sovereign country. What did the US and EU do? Obama administration decided to do reset policy with Russia – greatest mistake of President Obama and Angela Merkel, who kept closest relations with Putin and did not want to upset Putin. Russia was not even hit with bare minimum of sanctions for conquering Georgia’s two regions.

    This further encouraged Putin to find more military solutions to his political issues and goals. As Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili said “Ukraine, Crimea will be the next!” the EU leaders laughed at him. In 2014 the new reality sets in – Putin did order and conquered Crimea and Eastern Ukrainian regions. At that time the Obama administration and Angela Merkel received first reality check from Putin, but they made the second greatest mistake with Putin: They set bare minimum of sanctions, did not punish Putin for violating the international laws and let him get away again!

    This has turned Putin into a strong dictator backed by US dollars and EU Euros for the Russian energy exports (oil & gas), with more money going $$$ in his pockets as the crude oil prices went up, Putin was able to order more military adventures to settle his political objectives. In Syria Putin had committed number of atrocities against civilians and used chemical weapons. What consequences did he face? Absolutely nothing, verbal condemnation by the international community.

    And now we are in 2022. Post WW2, this is the third time (after Georgia in 2008, Ukraine 2014) Putin had ordered massive invasion and the war of conquest of a sovereign country. Suddenly the world woke up to new reality. However, the reality was established during the 1990s when Putin planned and executed the Moscow apartment bombings, the US/EU/NATO decided to ignore the warning signs and tried to welcome Putin into the international community.

    What is happening now in Ukraine should be the wake up call to the entire world. The post World War 2 international system & the world order has been shattered to pieces and international law had been completely ignored without any consequences by Putin again and again.
    What Ukraine needs is the world to come to terms with reality: Putin has to be defeated and the establishment/elite power structure of the Kremlin has to change. Before this happens, the Ukrainian military MUST receive all necessary lethal defensive and offensive weapons as well.

    The Ukrainians need to have anti-air capability to shoot down incoming missiles and airplanes from much higher altitudes, so the S-300/S-400 systems will be much welcome, however this is not enough. The Ukrainian army needs those MIG29s to enforce its own No Fly Zone, since the western powers are too scared to face Putin over even a limited No Fly Zone over humanitarian corridor. So lets give this power to the Ukrainians?

    What the Ukrainian side needs is Patriot missile systems as well and anti-artillery systems: radars, locators and smart artillery systems from the US.
    The above-mentioned weapons systems would have an immediate impact on the ground and will change the formula on the ground by giving Ukrainians much needed upper hand to control the air and protect the civilians from the #1 major killers: incoming artillery shells and missiles.

    Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!

    David Dzidzikashvili
    Ph.D. Candidate
    Business & Technology University – BTU
    Tbilisi, Georgia

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