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War brings out the best and worst in the EU

15 July 2022

Its support for Ukraine is undermined by backing authoritarian elements in other countries, says Alexander Faludy

WESTERN Christians commemorated St Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, on Saturday. His prayers may be needed more than ever as the continent approaches its fifth month of war in Ukraine. The conflict is reshaping European life far beyond that country’s borders.

On a positive note, the crisis has caused EU institutions and member states to work with a speed and unity seldom seen in the bloc’s history. Six rounds of increasingly severe economic and travel sanctions have been enacted with remarkable decisiveness, strengthening the EU’s previously lacklustre profile as a foreign-policy actor.

Eastern EU states’ exposure to potential Russian aggression raises the possibility that the previously symbolic “Defence” and “Solidarity” clauses of the European treaties might be invoked. This would offer a convenient mechanism for neutral EU members to bolster vulnerable front-line countries (especially Poland and the Baltic States) before, or even apart from, any NATO accession.

The granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, on 23 June, was considered impracticable only a few months ago. Again, however, wartime conditions stimulated the EU to discover a deeper solidarity, external as well as internal, than was previously thought possible.

UKRAINE’s path to actual EU membership might be long. Turkey has been a candidate since 1999. The so-called West Balkan States (North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia) have been killing time in the EU’s waiting room for between 13 and 18 years each — despite significant, even sacrificial, efforts to meet EU requirements.

But, while the granting of full EU membership to Ukraine is not an immediate possibility, given the complexity of legal processes, a speedier path to accession seems to be a concern for some EU leaders.

“Ukraine is fighting for our values, in the most impossible conditions. . . We should not ignore them,” the President of the European Parliament, the Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola told fellow legislators on 5 April.

Mrs Metsola’s intervention set the tone for the European Parliament’s response to the crisis when deliberating on Ukraine’s EU candidacy. On 23 June, an overwhelming number of MEPs — 529 of 588 — voted to support the motion (News, 1 July). It became effective on approval by the European Council the same day.

That Ukraine may merit more favourable treatment is, surprisingly, a view voiced not only by Ukrainian and EU politicians, but also by aspirant members frustrated by Brussels foot-dragging in their own cases.

“Ukraine deserves special treatment,” the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, told Politico Europe last month, before the announcement. This is because, by suffering foreign invasion as the price of commitment to liberal democracy, “Ukraine is doing for Europe something that no one has [done] since the Second World War.”

AND yet the war may be bringing out the worst, as well as the best, in EU institutions, which seem intent on appeasing authoritarian strongmen inside the EU’s own borders. The EU agreed a sixth round of Russian sanctions on 2 June only at the cost of making significant concessions to the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán (News, 10 June). These allowed him to exploit a “temporary” waiver for Hungary on importing Russian oil indefinitely, and to maintain Patriarch Kirill’s access to the Schengen zone, in the name of “freedom of religion”.

The shifting posture of Brussels towards the rule-of-law crisis in Poland is alarming. Poland’s strategic position on the border of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and its willingness to absorb refugees, has made Brussels reluctant to withhold EU funds that were suspended because of Warsaw’s pressure on domestic judges and its defiance of European Court of Justice rulings.

On 2 June, the Commission President, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, announced to the European Parliament a plan agreed with the Polish government (led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party) to unblock the country’s suspended €35.4-billion Covid-recovery funding. The funds, she claimed, would be strictly conditional on Poland’s rule-of-law improvement.

Expert examination, however, revealed a different picture. Contrary to the implications of assertions in parliament, it emerged that money would start to flow to Warsaw before the reform process was completed. That process lacks safeguards against merely “symbolic compliance” — a tactic previously used extensively by Hungary to frustrate Brussels efforts to secure adherence to EU norms.

The plan’s credibility was further undermined when United Poland (a junior coalition partner to Law and Justice) issued a statement concerning the agreement, stating that “we do not feel obliged to implement all the provisions contained therein.”

Professor Laurent Pesch, of Middlesex University, offered a scathing criticism of Dr Von der Leyen’s approach. In an article published on the legal-affairs portal Verfassungsblog, on 21 June, he asserted: “Never underestimate the President of the Commission’s willingness to fake her commitment to the Rule of Law and the EU Council’s willingness to support her enabling of those engaged in its systemic violation.”

If the EU survives the military threat that Russia poses from without, it may yet destroy itself morally from within.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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