2023 has demonstrated how difficult it has become for the 27-strong European Union to deal with international crises effectively.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU has painstakingly constructed a discourse of power, augmented and sustained by drastic measures ranging from sanctions against Russian businesses and individuals, the introduction of an oil price cap, and further restrictions on technology, all aimed at weakening the Russian economy. The EU aligned itself with the G7 group to improve the effectiveness of its sanctions regime. Yet, results are somewhat mixed as influential non-EU countries and regions such as India, China, and the Middle East, to name a few, have not been all too keen to align with the West.
All these measures, together with the constant provision of financial and military support to Ukraine, constructed an image of a powerful EU unseen in the history of the Union. Over decades many scholars have described the nature of the EU’s power, starting with Duchene’s description of a Civilian Power until the 1990s and moving on to become a Normative Power, a title ascribed to the EU by Manners in the early 2000s. However, in the academic world, describing the EU can be a tough nut to crack as the EU is sui generis, a polity of its own, which cannot fit easily into some form of established description.
Fast forward to 2016, and the EU started toying with the idea of a geopolitical power in the aftermath of the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. While it failed to react swiftly, the EU came to terms with a new, assertive Russia and immediately realised that the way forward was for it to start flexing its geopolitical muscles. This strategy was deficient in the absence of a defence union, which has remained elusive.
After 7th October
When Hamas struck Israel on 7th October, the world was in shock and there are no words to describe the barbarity of such an attack. However, in the immediate aftermath of the event, the EU scrambled to formulate a response. Everyone assumed that, following the lessons learnt from Ukraine, the EU was to emerge stronger. Yet, this was not to be the case. The first reaction of the European Commission was to announce the suspension of EU funds to the Palestinians, only to retract it a few hours later when it was apparent that the High Representative and Commission Vice-President was not in agreement with this policy.
Making matters worse, the visuals from Israel of European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in bulletproof vests with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proved to be a PR disaster for the European Union. The unfolding events in the Middle East and the barbarity of Israel’s response gave way to a backlash against the EU and Western leaders in the Middle East region and beyond. The EU started being accused of double standards as it remained ambivalent about the plight and suffering of the Palestinians.
The EU’s reaction to the 7th October attacks dealt a massive blow to the power image the bloc had painstakingly constructed in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The decision on Ukraine
This was not the end of the EU’s freefall in this regard. Fast forward to December 2023, and the EU was proposing to revise its budget for 2024-2027, proposing to allocate €50 billion to Ukraine in grants and loans and approve whether membership negotiations were to open with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. This proposal was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, made it amply clear from the beginning that Hungary does not share the same analysis of progress by Ukraine and, therefore, the EU should not open negotiations with Ukraine. This matter was to be decided by European Leaders. Despite the much fanfare about the decision, after Orbán left the room for the other leaders to decide by consensus – as it is customary in European Council meetings – EU insiders remain acutely aware of the challenges the EU will face in 2024. The enlargement process contains around 72 votes that require unanimity, and despite the decision to open negotiations with Ukraine, the negotiating framework and the opening of the Intergovernmental Conferences require unanimity, too.
Moreover, opening negotiations with Ukraine, a country still at war, conveyed a wrong signal to the Western Balkans, who feel eclipsed by Ukraine and Moldova in their prospect of joining the EU.
Opening a Pandora’s box
This decision opens a Pandora’s box for the future of the European Union. The EU is not functioning well at 27 and will definitely not function well at 35 unless reforms are made in its politics and institutions. The reforms are also necessary for the bloc to remain a credible international interlocutor. Reforms will be painful for many, and once Member States start to look at their interests first, the reforms might be excruciating for the small Member States who are afraid of being sidelined by the bigger ones. A multi-track EU might be the only plausible option for the future of the EU, as it would allow Member States to opt for a deeper union. This is not a new concept, and the Lisbon Treaty already provides for such an approach in the form of Permanent Structured Cooperation.
Whether the concept of unanimity in Council is to be retained will be a crucial issue in the upcoming discussions. While it has been blamed for the EU’s ineffectiveness in international affairs, unanimity, as the term implies, incorporates all Member States, which makes the EU positions stronger. Moving away from unanimity might ultimately result in the EU’s disintegration as sections of European citizens might not feel represented.
Protecting the smaller Member States from being eclipsed by other Member States and explaining the Franco-German nexus shift to the east will be crucial
Ultimately, the future of the EU will depend on the choices it makes.
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