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.