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As the war came to the doorstep of Kyiv, the European Union and its allies were swift to react. While direct military support has been repeatedly discouraged to avoid further – drastic – escalations, the EU has taken other paramount measures which have fundamentally changed the direction of European foreign policy to support the defense of Ukraine. Indeed, as the war kept surging, European support did not waiver by providing lethal equipment to Kyiv and applying a series of sanctions and economic warfare techniques to damage the Russian offensive.
These measures represent the first crucial instance in which the EU engaged in these types of activities. As such, since the war began a little over two months ago, it is important to assess what the European response entails for the future of the Union, and what the repercussions could be both within Europe and towards its foreign relations.
The Union approving the funding and purchasing of lethal weapons from its own budget represent a historical precedent. Indeed, this is the first time that the Union directed its funds – over 450 million euros – towards supporting a country at war to provide military and humanitarian aid. These measures, supported by the European Parliament to “activate any EU budget instruments available”, demonstrate a sudden shift in the EU foreign policy so far, and it has accelerated the process of transformation of Brussels’s response to the external crisis.
INTERNAL: Challenging Constitutional Boundaries of EU Budget.
Fundamentally, the consequences of this European response are twofold. Internally, this opens up a series of questions in regard to the European budget and action; under Art. 41 on the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the EU budget cannot be used to finance military expenditure in regard to common foreign and security policies outside the EU. However, this is not absolute, as Art. 41(2) provides that such measures can be adapted in situations where the Council unanimously decides otherwise. Hence, to circumnavigate this in the context of the war in Ukraine, the Council adopted two decisions on assistance measures: decision (CFSP) 2022/338) for the supply of military equipment and support designed to deliver lethal force to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and decision (CFSP) 2022/339 on the supply of non-lethal aid and humanitarian relief.
This support, to put it mildly, does not come cheap. Hence, the first question that stems is what the internal consequences of such measures are. While this deserves praise for the swift response of a system which is often condemned for being cluttered and cumbersome, what are the repercussions within the Union? If the Union were to have a unified military budget and response, what does that entail for the current provisions of the various Member States? Finally, given the severe costs that military budgets entail, and the fact that the EU budget can be meddled with only to a certain extent, does that entail a new system of internal taxation and perhaps unified debt, where each MS is called to support and participate to the European military expenditure, similarly to the federal system of the United States? These are just some of the questions that arise from this new situation, as the EU finds itself in a completely new uncharted territory.
What most hope for is that these questions will never need an answer and that the EU military expense remains a unicum with Ukraine, an unprecedented effort in tragic situations which we as a global community shall hope to never arise again. However, should a similar situation repeat itself, then the EU could implement a system capable to address the new challenges which would automatically follow with it.
EXTERNAL: NEW METHODS OF RESPONSE
Nonetheless, while the internal consequences of such actions remain to be seen, what we can already assess is how these measures fundamentally change the reality of the European foreign policy response. Indeed, this is the first time in the Union’s history that such a stance is taken in the context of a foreign conflict (as in, regarding third countries which are not part of the EU), and most notably in taken so openly the side of one. In the past, the Union has been aloof in its stance regarding conflict, and some have even criticized it for being slow and timid in its foreign policy approach. This system was in dire need of a change, and now, the war has accelerated the transformation of the EU geopolitical response.
Therefore, what this transformation is going to look like in the foreseeable future is yet uncertain. Indeed, this new European response seems to be founded on two pillars: focus on hard power and large-scale sanctions.
For what concerns the latter, these are not exactly unprecedented for the Union, as the EU has reacted with small and target sanctions when facing foreign conflicts, such as in Myanmar or Nicaragua. However, while that appeared to be more of a consequence of a wider geopolitical effort, with the sanctions on Russia the EU has spearheaded the efforts of economic warfare. Thus, this remains a stand-out instance of a fairly established practice at this point, which still however symbolizes a shift in paradigm in the way the EU confronts foreign conflicts.
The more interesting development instead, is found in the Union’s new focus on hard power. The Council approved on March 21st the Strategic Compass: an ambitious plan for strengthening the EU’s security and defense policy. This entails a scheme to establish an EU rapid deployment contingent of up to 5000 troops from various MS, to “address common threats and challenges”. The Strategic Compass also envisages a system to enhance defense expenditures across MS and strengthen the Defence system of the Union as a whole with its partners
The shift is, therefore, quite apparent. Whether this was ignited solely by the war in Ukraine, or this was already in the works and was just accelerated by the conflict, it remains that the newfound European focus on hard power is unprecedented. At its very foundation, indeed, with the Treaty of Rome in 1958, it was spelled out how the aim of the Union was to promote peace and prosperity through economic interdependence and political convergence. Now, as the Union keeps evolving, the promotion of peace seems to be dependent on the need to establish a European military framework to conduct operations and increase spending.
While this new direction for Europe can offer some apparent benefits, chief amongst them is an ever-increasing convergence between the Member States and sentiment of mutual dependence, this shift to hard power in response to foreign conflict does set a dangerous precedent. If the promotion of peace comes through the bearing of arms, then it is the Union’s duty that these new mechanisms remain in place only for extraordinary circumstances. Instead, what the Strategic Compass seemed to have ushered in, is a far wider and more complex mechanism for EU military action, which is taking the Union into a new chapter of its history.
INTERIM CONCLUSION: A NEW PATH TO BE FOUND
Often, when the main geopolitical actors at play are discussed, we fail to recognize that these entities evolve too. In particular, when considering the European Union, is often considered a slow, cumbersome beast of bureaucracy where nothing actually changes. While that is true to an extent, at the same time we fail to recognize that the Union is still a young and evolving organization and has changed drastically since its inception in Rome.
Therefore, when assessing the new developments in relation to the war in Ukraine, it becomes clear how this situation could drastically change the Union’s future. It remains difficult to assess whether these changes will remain an unicum in the EU policies, or whether this represents the beginning of a new era for both internal EU budget and external foreign relations. Yet, these evolutions will inevitably transform the functioning of the European Union, and open the door for even further changes in the future.
- What does this change in EU foreign action entail for the Member States?
- Is a “federalist” approach to military expenditures what the EU needs?
- Will the Strategic Compass help reinforce Europe’s security, or will it lead to further escalation?