The Ukraine crisis: can the French EU presidency respond?4 min read
France took over the rotating presidency of the EU at the start of the year and it hasn’t exactly got off to a good start. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, hopes to use the EU presidency to push for the adoption of an EU defence policy. However, the escalating crisis in Ukraine is laying bare the underlying weaknesses of the EU as a power capable of acting strategically.
Since Russia sent more than 100,000 troops to the eastern border of Ukraine, there is a real threat of renewed military action on European soil. The US issued a warning in December that Moscow could launch a fresh invasion of Ukraine as soon as early 2022. To prevent further escalation, the United States, NATO, and Russia have been holding talks in Geneva to discuss the open-door policy NATO had applied to Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest Summit in 2008. Moscow wants the western alliance to reverse its position that the two former Soviet states in question will become members of NATO.
The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis comes amid a revived debate on whether Europe needs to take on more responsibility for its collective defence and security. NATO, under the leadership of the United States, has been a key guarantor of peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. The alliance contained the threat from the Soviet Union and prevented a militaristic resurgence of Germany after its reunification. The French president believes this postwar security system is no longer fit for purpose in the world Europe faces today. In a crisis-ridden environment, the EU must develop its own defence policy to advance its geopolitical interests, says Macron.
However, France’s call for European strategic autonomy took a blow as the talks in Geneva sidelined the EU. Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said that the bloc cannot be a spectator to the discussions and warned of a repeat of the Yalta conference when the leaders of the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union shaped the postwar settlement of Europe in 1945. Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, admitted that the EU has few means at its disposal to deter Russian aggression.
So can France use the power of the EU presidency to rejuvenate EU management of the crisis in Ukraine? Divisions within Europe will make this a difficult task. Eastern EU member states still see NATO as the primary source of their security. During the Belarus border crisis last year, when President Alyaksandar Lukashenka deliberately instigated a migration crisis in Poland and Lithuania, the Baltic states and Warsaw agreed that they would trigger Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty and come to each other’s aid if their sovereignty or territorial integrity were compromised. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, ensured that language on the importance of NATO to European security was included in the last European Council summit conclusions in December.
Internal tensions also undermine the EU’s ability to act with coherence in the Ukraine crisis. The dispute between Poland and Brussels over the issue of the rule of law looks far from over. While the EU believes the changes to the Polish judiciary disrespect fundamental EU values, Warsaw says they are necessary to fix a judicial system beset with corruption and communist-era mentalities. Olaf Scholz, the newly-elected German chancellor, agreed with Morawiecki on the need for the EU and Poland to find a quick, pragmatic solution during their first bilateral meeting in Warsaw.
However, Brussels’ policy decisions do not appear to match this fresh drive to end the EU-Polish feud. In December, the European Commission decided to launch legal action against Poland for its Constitutional Court ruling stating that parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution. This escalation comes amid a European Court of Justice ruling due to be made this year on the legality of the new rule of law conditionality mechanism. If the ECJ approves the mechanism, Poland faces the prospect of being denied its share of the new €800bn EU Next Generation coronavirus recovery fund.
NATO may be a system of collective security, but its ability to advance the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine is limited. NATO is primarily a military alliance created to protect the west from the Soviet threat during the Cold War. On the other hand, the European Union is a political-economic organisation capable of deploying a more nuanced strategy than the transatlantic alliance. The EU’s Eastern Partnership offers a framework of deepening political and economic cooperation between Ukraine and the west. If the French presidency can upgrade the Eastern Partnership to include support for Ukraine’s military, cyber, and intelligence services under an EU defence policy, it may offer a channel for Kyiv to build its resilience against Russian aggression.
France is in a privileged position to pursue its EU presidency ambitions regarding defence and security. It has the influence that comes with being one of the founding members of the European project and it is the second biggest economy in the EU. But it will be a tall order. Although Macron may think NATO is ‘brain dead’, there are signs that Europe still needs to get its own house in order before it can realise its potential as a strategic actor.