How has the EU handled the looming crisis in Ukraine? So far the answer – put simply – is that it hasn’t. Faced with the prospect of Russian aggression against its “eastern partner”, the bloc has appeared hopelessly divided. It has been left confused by its toxic relationship with Russia, especially in central Europe, where energy dependency on Moscow is extreme. This has resulted in leaders from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to the presidents of Croatia and the Czech Republic publicly condemning NATO’s defensive troop build-up in eastern Europe.
Yet with the likelihood of war growing by the day, signs are emerging that a process of soul-searching has already begun – and that possible Russian military action could, in fact, usher in an era of closer union for Europe.
Central Europe has been riven by disagreements about how to respond to Russian aggression. A recent visit by Orbán to Moscow to discuss Hungarian-Russian business relations was even branded “treasonous” in some quarters. Yet the Fidesz leader used the launch of his party’s election campaign in Budapest on Saturday to call for the establishment of a common European defence force, saying that “the military strength of Europe should at least be comparable to that of Russia”. The suggestion that the EU should be collectively responsible for its own security is significant coming from one of the harshest critics of EU federalism.
Orbán also raised the possibility of a huge wave of refugees arriving from Ukraine – a fear shared by regional allies including the Czech Republic and Poland. Their warnings have brought back memories of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, when these countries’ refusal to accept refugees provoked a bitter and long-running conflict with Brussels.
This time though, the rhetoric is different. The Czech Defence Minister suggested her country would have a moral duty to take in Ukrainian refugees, particularly the wives and children of those fighting on the front line. Whatever the reasons for different attitudes towards displaced people from Ukraine and Syria, it seems that far from reopening old wounds, a new refugee crisis could usher in an era of greater humanitarian collaboration in the EU.
Greater unity – on dealing with migration flows, and especially on the question of collective security – would be the result of necessity rather than choice. There’s a growing sense in some sections of eastern European society that the region’s military reliance on America is untenable. As US army convoys rumble along the motorways, the Ukraine crisis has highlighted an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar feeling of powerlessness; a dependency thrown into even sharper relief by the knowledge that eastern Europe will only become a smaller strategic priority for Washington in the future.
The Ukraine tensions have mercilessly highlighted collective shortcomings in the EU’s eastern flank. But they are also leading some of the bloc’s rebels to examine where their individual loyalties truly lie.
The relationship between Poland and Brussels has at times over the past year seemed irrevocably damaged by legal and cultural conflict. Yet faced with the prospect of Russian aggression to the east, the conservative country is quietly trying to put its conflicts with the West to bed.
President Andrzej Duda flew to Brussels last week to discuss a proposal to disband the country’s controversial disciplinary chamber for judges. The chamber is at the heart of Poland’s legal dispute with the EU, and its removal would be a significant concession to EU lawmakers. Some have suggested the proposal may be little more than a rebranding exercise for the chamber; but that doesn’t change the fact that a wish to be accepted back into the fold has, all of a sudden, become apparent.
The week before, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Prague to resolve a long-running dispute over the huge Turów coal mine on the Polish-Czech border, agreeing to Czech conditions for the mine’s continued operation. Notwithstanding the EU’s earlier demand that the mine shut down completely, the relative ease with which the two countries concluded previously fractious negotiations suggested new considerations had come to bear on the argument.
Pro-EU forces suggested a daily fine levied by the European Court of Justice for each day of continued operations at the mine altered the Polish calculations. But given the enormous political capital which the country’s United Right government could gain from being seen to suffer at the hands of Brussels, such conclusions seem like wishful thinking.
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Far more likely is a new realisation that the closer the external military threat from Russia, the greater the need for western allies to disencumber themselves of internal disputes. Such considerations will only prove more powerful – and more widespread – if Moscow does launch an invasion of Ukraine. The EU’s long-term problems won’t go away; but fear may prove a powerful motivation for fixing what can be fixed.