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Heidi Maurer, Richard Whitman, and Nicholas Wright reflect on Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine from the perspective of EU foreign policy cooperation, arguing that the EU’s response shows it has been more of a reality check than a turning point. 

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has upended Europe’s security order, with many observers calling it a turning point for the EU. In a recently published (open access) research article we contend, however, that the EU’s response has been less a turning point and more of an epiphany, providing a reality check for the EU and its member states about how far European foreign policy cooperation has evolved in recent decades.

The EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 highlights the potential of its foreign policy system to enact meaningful collective diplomacy. It has imposed an extensive range of trade, financial and individually-targeted sanctions against named individuals; implemented a variety of macro-financial and other financial support measures, including assistance to refugees within and beyond Ukraine’s borders; and, most notably, provided a €2.5 billion financial support package for direct military assistance to Ukraine using the recently created European Peace Facility.

Alongside these measures, at an informal meeting in Versailles in March 2022, EU leaders agreed on the need to decrease Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and to strengthen their defence capacity. Markedly, it has also generated a major reconsideration of the future size of the EU with Ukraine now embarked on the process to become a candidate for membership (alongside Georgia and Moldova).

The speed and extent of the member states’ response has attracted considerable commentary. Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative, even characterised the EU’s response as a ‘geopolitical awakening’. Certainly, it appears to have been a cathartic moment both for the EU collectively and member states individually, most notably for Germany.

The contrast between the EU’s reaction to Russia’s February 2022 offensive against Ukraine with its response to the earlier invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 is stark. In the period since Russia’s invasion in February there has been a greater level of collective EU response. The scale and scope of Russia’s actions, not least as the culmination of an extended pattern of hostile actions against other European states since the invasion of Georgia in 2008, has undoubtedly facilitated a shifting EU member-state perspective on its largest neighbour.

There has been further demonstration of the added value of a collective ability to act and of standing together in the cases of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. These experiences have further strengthened the commonality of purpose embodied by EU foreign policy cooperation, even if not necessarily the commonality (or effectiveness) of outcomes.

Unlike the previous past major challenges to collective EU foreign policy, such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq or Syria, the drive for a collective responsibility to act on Ukraine since February 2022 has been inescapable.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has acted as an EU foreign policy epiphany in two important senses. First, the nature of Russia’s violation of the European security order has made the absence of a collective EU policy response unthinkable. The EU, by necessity, has had to create a timely foreign policy response rather and the absence of a collective position is not an option.

Second, as Russia is deeply intertwined with the EU member states’ economies, societies and security order it has required a Union response across a broad range of policy areas encompassing trade, energy, asylum and immigration, enlargement and neighbourhood policies to an unprecedented degree.

Further, the egregious nature of Russia’s actions on the Ukrainian state and society has impinged directly on the EU’s operation as a political community by eliciting a high degree of reaction to counter the actions of the Putin regime from within and across member states. This has further heightened the sense of the need for collective response.

However, while the EU member states response certainly demonstrates that when they wish, member states have significant capacity for collective foreign policy action, our starting point is to see the EU’s response less as a turning point and more a reality check: this extreme challenge shows how far, for all its faults and failings, European foreign policy cooperation has evolved since 1970.

The EU’s response to the invasion requires consideration of the over half a century of intensified foreign policy cooperation and the development of what we term ‘a collective European responsibility to act’.

We argue that the system endures because of the increased identification of member states as a collective. This collective norm has not been enshrined in the treaties or put forward as a political goal in the realm of foreign policy. Rather, it has emerged through the repeated and institutionalised interactions between member-state capitals and their representatives in Brussels in the realm of foreign policy and beyond.

The EU member states’ collective foreign policy response to Russia’s war on Ukraine is comprehensible by the actions of the Putin regime but is not fully explicable without understanding that it is underpinned by a norm that has been over fifty years in the making.

By Dr Heidi Maurer, researcher, Danube University Krems, Professor Richard G. Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Nicholas Wright, Visiting Researcher, Centre for Britain in Europe, University of Surrey.

This post draws on the article ‘The EU and the invasion of Ukraine: A collective responsibility to act’ published in the January 2023 issue of the journal International Affairs. The article is free to view and can be found here.

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