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Judy Asks: Is Europe Still Committed to Ukraine?

After Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed Ukraine “one of us.” The EU institutions have since given Ukraine almost €85 billion ($92 billion) in military, financial, and humanitarian aid, with individual member states giving billions more. By comparison, the United States has given a total of €71.4 billion ($77 billion).

On that level, the EU can congratulate itself on its commitment to Ukraine. But the Kiel Institute for the World Economy has calculated that pledges of aid in August to October 2023 fell by almost 90 percent compared to the same period last year. The Biden Administration is visibly struggling to get aid for Ukraine through the U.S. Congress, but the EU is also failing to agree on more support.

The obstacles are partly political—Budapest wants Kyiv to improve the status of its Hungarian minority and is looking for concessions in its dispute with the EU over the rule of law—and partly fiscal—Germany is blocking a multiyear replenishment of the EU fund used to pay for weapons and munitions for Ukraine.

If the European Council on December 14–15 fails to agree to open accession negotiations with Kyiv, it will be a clear sign that the EU’s commitment to Ukraine is waning, a victory for Vladimir Putin—and no way to treat a country that is “one of us.”

Europe is rhetorically and politically committed to Ukraine and, no doubt, the EU has made an unprecedented effort in the last year and a half. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to put the EU’s money where its mouth is.

The union’s war fatigue is not caused so much by a possible disengagement of the public but by the imposition of national political agendas and the realization of the limited effects of the efforts made thus far. Neither have managed to break the frontline deadlock in favor of the Ukrainian troops. There’s enough to keep Ukraine on its feet, but there is also an increasing awareness of the cost of a long war.

The EU’s political will to support Ukraine is hostage to the domestic agendas of some European capitals, and the pre-electoral period that is about to begin. There are clear gains for radical right-wing forces in the polls. These can only further complicate the urgent decisions that need to be made, plus the budget discussion.

In short, this is about EU’s credibility, in Ukraine and in the whole enlargement process. Brussels, Washington, and Moscow all know that the EU will never be able to fill the gap of any U.S. aid reduction. But the geopolitical and economic cost of Ukraine’s defeat would be even greater. It’s about the future of the Ukrainian people but also about how the EU expects to deal with Russia in the war’s aftermath.

The question of whether Europe is still committed to Ukraine is actually part of a broader question: Is Europe committed to its security and to the transatlantic relations? Sadly, the answer seems to be no.

Evidence A of this indictment is the development in the negotiations over the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). The SGP, a set of fiscal rules limiting governments’ spending, has been suspended since the outbreak of Covid-19. Earlier this year, the Commission proposed a legislative overhaul designed to increase public investment in strategic priorities. But at its meeting of December 8, the EU’s Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN) Council, under German pressure, significantly watered down the Commission’s proposal, reintroducing austerity features, which—if accepted—will severely limit member states’ budgets in the years ahead.

Remarkably, finance ministers negotiating the SGP seem to be oblivious to the consequences this has for Europe’s security and defense. Further constraining national budgets will only reduce EU member states’ capacities to support Ukraine, and make them more delinquent toward their NATO obligations.

So, it is time to call spade a spade: The latest draft of the SGP is a threat to European security and transatlantic relations. It does not take much foresight to know that if Donald Trump wins the White House in eleven months, the U.S. cavalry will not be behind the hill to rush to our defense, and to that of Ukraine. Sticking to balance budgets now is like committing to a suicide pact. European defense and our support for Ukraine should not be at the mercy of the SGP.

Disappointments on the battlefield have dispelled the hopes for quick success. The U.S. population and Congress are turning their back on Ukraine when it comes to aid. The Hamas-Israel war is capturing the attention of the public while its divisive effects in European societies favor the rise of Ukraino-skeptic populists. Germany suffers from its self-inflicted budgetary plight as the Karlsruhe court throws the book at the executive. All these put the December European Council into crisis mode, notably on EU membership for Ukraine and the prospects for the previously mooted funding package.

Following through on these propositions will be hard enough, but they are on the table. The bigger issue has yet to be broached: how to replace American support as the U.S. body-politic puts Europe on notice that this war will no longer be principally funded by the United States. That can only be dealt with if the Europeans not only fulfil NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal but raise it to a Polish-style 3 percent level.

All this will be politically and financially fraught. However, allowing Putin to be seen as prevailing against Ukraine will be a much more costly and painful proposition well before the end of the decade.

Yes, and it will remain committed. There is no doubt that politically, militarily, and economically Europe will stand on the side of Ukraine.

However, there are three main actions that Europeans should take to stay on course. First, European countries should proactively introduce measures and policies to overcome a potential war and support fatigue in their societies.

Second, Europeans need to start properly managing frozen and immobilized Russian assets, invest them, and use the proceeds for Ukraine. This could help to achieve an economic breakthrough.

Third, Europe needs to ramp up its defense industrial production to meet the Ukrainian battlefield demands. This will not be achieved without European allies spending more on defense.

Decisions by EU leaders at this week’s summit will determine the actual level of commitment. Overall, the support remains quite strong. But the need for unanimity in the EU’s decisionmaking enables a vocal minority. Ukraine also faces the same issue on the other side of the Atlantic.

What is crucial at this juncture is political leadership. Amid the usual grandiose rhetoric like “European strategic autonomy,” the current reality demands hard work and tangible actions, not mere lip service.

The talk of “fatigue” is also not entirely convincing. While Europeans face numerous socioeconomic pressures, it is Ukrainians who are fighting in the trenches. Additionally, even if opinion polls show some ambivalence, a relatively strong willingness to continue supporting Ukraine remains. Thus, the fatigue talk might be a convenient way for politicians to mask a lack of strategic will to take action.

However, if short-term thinking prevails, Europe will bear the brunt. There are no signs that the war will end soon. If Russia were to achieve its goals, the burden on European countries, in terms of costs and geopolitical insecurity, would rise exponentially. Ukraine has shielded the West and bought it some time; we better use it wisely.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the result of widespread underestimation of Ukraine’s resilience and of the strength of the West. However, circumstances are changing and time is on Russia’s side. The prospect of a possible reduction in U.S. military support and a halt to the Ukrainian counter-offensive increases the risk of a fragmentation of leadership and thus responsibility for Europe’s security.

Not all EU countries share the perception of having to support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” If Europe turns its back on Ukraine, then it is itself in danger. Putin will not be declaring victory over Ukraine, but over the collective West. This will encourage him to escalate and use blackmail again, and while this may be based on another misperception, it will be dangerous for the NATO countries.

Moreover, Europe’s military weakness will reinforce the aggressive tendencies of other authoritarian regimes, including China. The war in Ukraine has given time to rearm, to adapt the arms industry to Putin’s long war. The supply of arms to Ukraine is not only a question of U.S. leadership and credibility, but above all a question of European security. Unfortunately, there is no such understanding among some European leaders, who reduce this war only to defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

A very good question. Maybe it should be expanded and clarified a bit. Is Europe still committed to defending its values? Is democracy still willing and able to defend itself?

Until recently, we repeatedly heard commitments to Ukraine: “We will help as much as is necessary.” “We will help until the end.” We said that our sanctions against Russia would be devastating and crushing.

Now the incantations for help are repeated less and less. The twelfth package of sanctions on Russia is being painstakingly prepared. But the Russian economy has not only survived; it manages to revive its military industry and to produce more ammunition for artillery than the United States and Europe combined.

One sixth of the world’s economy cannot stop an aggressor rampaging with brute military force. The EU must take radical measures as soon as possible. Take away Hungary’s right to vote. It is openly fighting against the EU. Introduce qualified majority voting for the most important Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) issues, especially with regard to accession of new states, sanctions, special missions—all of which has been recommended by the European Parliament for a long time.

The EU must understand that being proud of its unity is already quite difficult. We need leadership, efficiency, and a quick, adequate reaction to events in the world and especially on our continent.

Heading into the European Council this week, it is clear that Ukraine is no longer the top priority for many member states, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has understood this. This time, it is not just about him bargaining for EU funds but about gaining momentum with right-wing populists elected in Slovakia and the Netherlands, a dysfunctional German governing coalition in a deep budget crisis, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is proving incapable of leading Europe. The internal problems in several member states, with a focus on migration, growing budget deficits, and reform gridlocks will lead to less support for Ukraine.

The new Polish government will not change the situation since it has to focus on addressing domestic polarization. The lack of leadership in Europe and the unwillingness to gain the momentum in terms of changing fundamentals in EU decisionmaking, European defense policy, and moving forward with enlargement will strengthen the disrupters and supporters of Russia in Europe. Ukraine will not get the weapons and ammunition it needs next year, nor the necessary funding. While Russia has done its homework to prepare for a long war, Europe has not.

This week’s European Council meeting is one of the most important in recent times but looks certain to fail.

What looked like a breakthrough year for the enlargement process is now increasingly clouded with uncertainty, as the EU fails to find a way around the veto of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. To compound this failure, the EU looks likely to release a significant portion of the EU funding withheld from Hungary for rule-of-law transgressions. EU law specialists are convinced the recent Hungarian “reforms” are as fake as any previous “reforms” Orbán’s regime has undertaken.

The EU’s failures on Ukraine are not just down to Hungary. The union is failing to help Ukraine on multiple fronts: The continuing blockages of border crossings by Polish truckers—with Hungarian truckers now joining in—is disgraceful and, taken together with the earlier dispute about Ukrainian grain entering the union, hardly suggests EU solidarity with Ukraine.

The biggest European failure is that many governments cannot see that Ukraine’s fate—and that of the Western Balkans and Moldova—is tied up with the existential global fight between autocracy and democracy. The battle over how to deal with Hungary within the union is a microcosm of the wider battle against authoritarianism. More than anything, it is the lack of political will to confront the cancer of Orbanism that is helping to portray the EU as divided, weak, and incapable of standing up for what is right in the world.

Quite predictably, there are signs of “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe.

Unlike with the Covid-19 pandemic, the impacts of this war and the related threat perceptions are not evenly distributed throughout the EU and the strategic objectives are multiple and dependent on exogenous factors. In addition, the Western coalition leader—the United States—is not an EU member. This inevitably contributes to a more fragmented response within the union in the long run.

At the same time, the EU could be said to have become a victim of its own success. It is precisely the effectiveness of its initial response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has dampened the appeal of a unifying existential threat narrative. A protracted war in the neighborhood does not seem to have done considerable damage to European livelihoods. Even though European publics remain in favor of supporting Ukraine, the political costs of not doing so have gone down considerably.

These dynamics overshadow the bigger issue at stake—the fact that Europe, by way of its history and geography, is committed to Ukraine regardless of whether it admits it or not. For the EU, failing to shape the outcomes of this war will denote a failure to shape its own future.

To start with a positive angle, most European leaders and the majority of citizens do remain committed to supporting Ukraine. There is a broad understanding that it is not only the fate of Ukraine that is at stake but the future of European security and democracy at large. But there are dark clouds gathering.

First, there is something very dark about Hungary’s threats to bloc further EU aid and accession process to Ukraine. An authoritarian leader with murky ties to Russia is undermining the EU’s ability to take decisions that are crucial for the future of Europe. What exactly Viktor Orbán expects to gain is not publicly known, but he has become a threat to the EU as a whole.

Second, uncertainty over the continuation of U.S. aid is increasing pessimism in Europe about the eventual outcome of the war. So far, neither the United States nor major European states have been doing enough to help Ukraine win the war. They should do more, but they are even struggling to fulfil the commitments they have already made.

Third, messages about wavering and disunity of the West are visibly increasing Vladimir Putin’s confidence that if Russia keeps fighting, it will outlast the West. This is a vicious cycle that the United States and Europeans should break together through decisive action.

Europe is insufficiently committed to Ukraine. The EU is an impressive first in terms of financial aid, it has set up a facility to coordinate recovery and investment, and it has granted Ukraine applicant status. This is admittedly not bad, even if the EU is now divided on the issue of accession talks. The deeper problem, though, is that the union is investing in a long-term trading future it does not know how to secure in the short-term.

Ukraine will neither be safe nor attract investment unless NATO offers it a credible security arrangement. And Europe is nowhere near taking leadership on this critical issue; it lets Washington take the security lead at a time when congressional division and presidential election politics are about to be paralyze U.S. policymaking.

If Europe was seriously committed to Ukraine, it would not only start EU accession talks but also devise a plan for Europe’s defense leadership via NATO for a security arrangement for Ukraine. At a moment when the United States is dithering, a strong Europe would override Putin-friendly states such as Hungary and pull the United States into this ring.

The plan to implement the Ukraine Facility, the frequent visits to Ukraine by high-level EU politicians, the various attempts to convince Hungary to support both funding for Ukraine and the opening (hopefully) of accession negotiations, as well as continuing strong support from societies in many member states all show that Europe remains committed to Ukraine.

However, rising populism in numerous EU member states means that support for Ukraine could diminish and problems with the rule of law could increase, at the very time when the United States may be heading into a phase of lower support for Kyiv.

The EU must come up with creative solutions to assist Ukraine without the support of Hungary—and potentially others—while also finding mechanisms to require member states to conform to the rule of law. Otherwise, the EU that Ukraine hopes to join will no longer exist in the same form and with the same values it has today by the time Kyiv is ready for accession.

Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU has been neither smooth nor straightforward. At every critical step the EU had to take, there was an obstacle: a referendum in the Netherlands which impeded the ratification of the Association Agreement; the delayed introduction of the visa free regime until the (not really necessary) suspension mechanism was introduced; the seven requirements for opening accession negotiations attached to the candidate status granted to Ukraine in June 2022.

Now the December European Council, where the decision to start the negotiations with Ukraine will be hopefully taken, is another critical juncture. It is critical that the decision to start negotiations is merit-based, that is, based on Ukraine’s fulfilment of seven criteria, confirmed by the European Commission and not held hostage by Hungary or another member state.

Any hesitation, let alone backtracking by the EU, will deal a blow to the EU’s credibility and transformative power, hit Ukrainian morale, and play directly into Russia’s hands.

Source : Carnegie