Europe

Explained: Why the Ukraine crisis might be a geopolitical opportunity for the E.U.

Published : January 14, 2022 16:28 IST

European countries must unify if the E.U. is to seize 'hard power' in the Ukraine conflict, experts say. Photo: Feyrer/Panthermedia/imago images

The crisis in Ukraine could be an impulse for the E.U. to become more of a geopolitical player.

You could say that this week has not reflected well on the European Union's political power. As the Russian troop buildup on the eastern Ukrainian border continues to stoke fears of a Russian invasion, Europe did not even get a spot at the negotiating table. On January 10, senior diplomats from the United States and Russia met in Geneva for crunch talks, without any E.U. officials.

When the talks were moved to Brussels on January 12, the setting of choice was not the European Council bringing together European heads of state, but rather NATO headquarters. On Jabuary 13, negotiations are continuing at the permanent council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna.

Russia is accused of having massed 100,000 combat-ready troops at the Ukrainian border; the West is asking these troops to be withdrawn. Moscow is demanding that NATO pull its forces out of former Soviet countries, end any eastern expansion and rule out Ukraine joining the alliance. The U.S. calls this unrealistic, while underlining that talks should continue. And all along, it seems the E.U. is watching from afar.

'Feels like post-World War II'

E.U. member states' foreign ministers are coming together on January 13 and 14 in the northwestern French city of Brest. A French diplomatic source told journalists ahead of the informal meeting that the E.U. was "deeply implicated in ongoing discussions on Ukraine." "We are coordinating closely with the U.S. and being debriefed by them," the source said.

But observers can only marvel at how little of a role the E.U. seems to be playing. "This feels like the post-World War II period when the Americans and Russians were deciding on Europe's future — especially as this conflict is taking place right at Europe's doorstep," Jacques Rupnik, head of research at the Paris-based Sciences Po University, told DW. "The current situation is underlining how complicated it'll be for French President Emmanuel Macron to give Europe 'strategic autonomy' as he declared," he added.

France will be holding its six-month E.U. presidency of until June. Pro-European Macron had said during a press conference in December that he wanted to make "Europe powerful in the world, completely sovereign, free in its choices and the master of its destiny." The president announced an ambitious agenda, including a reform of the Schengen area with tighter control of Europe's external borders; stronger police cooperation; a new economic deal for the African continent; and a common European defense policy.

E.U. unity crucial for 'hard power'

With relation to such ambitions, Rupnik agrees the E.U. needs to get out of its role of an exclusively economic and commercial "soft power" and also become a geopolitical "hard power." But for that, consensus is crucial. And divisions amongst European partners start at the most basic points. "E.U. countries have diverging threat perceptions — Italy won't mind the security situation in the east as much as Poland, for example," Rupnik explained. He added that after the tenure of former U.S. President Donald Trump, member states assessed the U.S. position differently. Trump had been the first U.S. president to call the European Union a "foe."

Brendan Simms, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, agrees that unity is the essential ingredient for Europe to become a hard power. "The E.U. needs to turn into one state, with one president and one parliament, to become an important geopolitical player," he told DW. "That's how countries like the U.S., with its 50 member states, managed to bundle their forces." But he conceded that such complete unity is unlikely to occur. "Alas, that means the E.U. won't be able to do what it wants, as its power will remain atomized," he said.

Shortcomings as an opportunity

But there might be a silver lining, reckoned Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Center. "The current situation goes to show that the U.S. doesn't hesitate to bypass Europe — even regarding a conflict happening in one of the E.U.'s neighboring countries," she told DW. And that increases the urgency to come up with a common E.U. stance on defense, she believes.

"Europe now has to acknowledge that the world is dominated by competing powers such as China and the U.S., and that we have to act if we don't want to be completely overrun by things in the future," Pornschlegel said. She's hoping the E.U. will find more common ground in March, when it's set to agree on the so-called strategic compass, a white paper on E.U. defense policy that Macron is pushing. The meeting in Brest could partly pave the way for such an agreement.

French researcher Rupnik, meanwhile, predicts the E.U.'s 27 will move closer together — at least when it comes to the matter of immigration. "There now seems to be a consensus that we Europeans have to take back control over our external borders if the union is to persist — otherwise, nationalism will rise further," he concluded. "In that sense, the E.U. could indeed form a more unified block in the future."

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