Crisis in Ukraine: A Test for Effective EU Policy

This blog post is the seventh in a series of posts that come from students of our Politics of the European Union undergraduate course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to European integration. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of Europe, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

Alison RicciatoThe current crisis in Ukraine continues with protests and accusations of unwarranted arrests and deaths while the EU struggles to develop a unified response. The occupation of Crimea by Russian troops and the threat of Ukraine being reabsorbed by Russia demand an immediate response from European neighbors. The EU is particularly being held accountable, as many experts blame the turmoil in the region on muddled EU negotiations with Ukraine, which led to the Ukrainian president considering a more palatable offer from Russia. As exemplified by past conflicts in Europe, the EU cannot expect to contribute effective resolutions if intergovernmentalism continues to persist in EU foreign policy.

The theory of intergovernmentalism supports the prevalence of member states representing their national interests within EU institutions over collective decisions. Indeed, this suggests that member states will pursue their own political ends and will not accept EU-level decisions that threaten their national interest. Member states’ unilateral preferences for foreign policy action undermine any collective action EU institutions attempt to take, and thus the EU loses legitimacy and authority as a unitary actor. Karen Smith argues, “Any ‘foreign policy formulated at the EU level is inconsequential and weak because it represents the lower common denominator, or what the most reluctant member state could accept.”[1] The diversity of interests means that national foreign policy will be more powerful, and EU-level international decisions are diffuse and uncertain. Individual member states command more respect than does the body of the Union, for the EU lacks political commitment and consistency.

The results of such variable EU foreign policy are evident in such past crises as the break-up of Yugoslavia and the violence in the Balkans. The same problems of intergovernmentalism in international politics existed then as do today: a diversity of interests of member states, resulting in a confused and ineffective EU response. Indeed, European foreign policy expert Ben Tonra contends, “In terms of the EC/EU’s capacity as an international actor/presence in the Yugoslav/Bosnia crisis from 1991 to 1996, its ability to agree policy was…inconsistent. There were very significant differences over the goals and principles of policy.”[2] As the crisis worsened, member states of the EU disagreed on the subject of recognition of some of the republics versus respecting Yugoslavia’s territorial sovereignty. Germany especially dissented with the reluctance of the EU to become involved militarily and continued to threaten unilateral action. The disagreement of the member states meant that Germany aggressively asserted itself independently while the EU’s more cautious approach of condemnation and utilizing economic resources appeared weak and ineffectual. The crisis was not resolved until the intervention of NATO, further discrediting the abilities of the EU to effectively mitigate regional conflicts. Despite the relative success, near the end, of economic resources, Tonra concludes, “The absence of collective political will was a crucial feature. The unwillingness to apply military resources and the obvious rifts in policy at the outbreak of the crisis serious undermined credibility and were extensively exploited by the various protagonists.”[3] Thus, intergovernmentalism proved to be accurate in this case. Member states could not overcome their divergent national interests and form a unified political will to respond appropriately to the situation, and the reputation of the EU suffered accordingly.

The current Ukrainian emergency presents the EU with a chance to assert itself more strongly as an international actor than in the past. As in the situation with Yugoslavia, there is a diversity of national interests present. These states must collectively come to a decision, or otherwise continue the current path of indecision and mixed responses. Indeed, Ukrainians have long awaited membership in the EU and were receiving unclear communications in terms of what aid or ascendance they could expect just before President Yanukovych’s deal with Russia and subsequent breakdown of order. It is evident that the EU needs to be more definite in its policies, as unclear European motives were a factor in Yanukovych’s decision to favor an alliance with Russia. In the past few years, member states of the EU have disagreed on Ukraine’s membership, with opposition from Austria, Germany and France versus the support of Poland, Sweden, and other eastern bloc states.[4] At present, these deviating views continue. The geopolitical and economic situations of individual states play a role: a great amount of Russian capital is in the British bank system and Germany relies on Russia for energy imports (as does much of the EU), while Eastern European states favor the protection of a neighbor with perceived similarities in terms of difficulties with Russia. Despite the economic toll sanctions against Russia might take, this would be a powerful message by the EU. The need for military intervention to protect Ukrainian civilians or prevent Russia from further occupying territory in Crimea and beyond is also a possibility.

In the past, the EU has proven especially unwilling to commit military forces in foreign conflicts, or to commit to a strong reaction in general. The danger of a repetition of past mistakes is imminent: if the member states allow their different national interests to dilute their reaction as a collective institution, they will once again lose legitimacy as an actor in the international community. Only a commitment to integration in politics, particularly, foreign policy, will result in a cogent response to the current Ukrainian crisis and future international conflicts.

[1] Karen E. Smith, European Union Foreign Policy in a Changing World, (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2008), 10.

[2] Ben Tonra, The Europeanisation of National Foreign Policy: Dutch, Danish and Irish Foreign Policy in the European Union, (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2001), 241.

[3] Ibid., 244.

[4] Martin Dangerfield, “Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine: In or Out of European Regional International Society?,”Journal of European Integration: Special Issue: Europe After Enlargement, 33, no. 2 (2011).

Alison Ricciato is a study abroad student from Boston College in the United States. She spent the 2013-2014 academic year at UCD.


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