GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 619, 13 March 2022

Ukraine: The Versailles declaration of the EU leaders
Joeana Cera Matthews

What happened?
On 10 March, the EU leaders gathered for an emergency meeting at the Palace of Versailles in France. The two-day summit, hosted by France, concluded with the EU leaders adopting a declaration on the Russian aggression against Ukraine and measures to be more self-reliant.

Addressing the summit, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said: “Europe has changed in the face of the pandemic. It is going to change even more and faster in the face of war.” Macron also commented on Ukraine’s appeal for an accelerated EU accession: “Can we open a membership procedure with a country at war? I don't think so. Can we shut the door and say: 'never'? It would be unfair. Can we forget about the balance points in that region? Let's be cautious.”

On 11 March, the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte commented on Ukraine’s request for an accession: “There is no such thing as a fast-tracking of accession. It doesn’t exist.” Backing Rutte, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said: “Nobody entered the European Union overnight.”

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda addressed journalists: “I wish Ukraine gets the candidate status now... but it was not possible today, but we will come back to this issue.” The Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins added: “It is important to show a clear, open door for EU membership for Ukraine, that the path is open for them to take.”

What is the background?
First Ukraine’s candidature. Although the bloc sympathized with Ukraine, it denied Ukraine’s request for a quick accession. The debate about Ukraine’s accession into the bloc has been a long-drawn one. The EU requires specific terms and conditions to be met before countries are accepted into the bloc; Ukraine still has a long way to go. The bloc is unable to fasten the accession process, even with Ukraine under attack.

Second, Russia and Europe’s energy dependence. Europe depends on Russia for 40 per cent of its natural gas, 27 per cent of oil imports and 46 per cent of coal. Calls by members such as Latvia and Poland to cut off Russian fossil fuels implies a direct hit to the already declining economy. The impact of such a move will be primarily suffered by Germany, Austria and Hungary, whose economies will dwindle given their heavy dependence on Russian energy. Nonetheless, the lack of unity regarding an embargo did not hinder a unanimous approval to reduce dependency on Russian energy.

Third, the refugee crisis. The UN refugee agency - the UNHCR claims 2.2 million Ukrainians to have fled the country with more than half of this number being children. The large-scale displacement has increased vulnerability for Ukraine’s neighbouring countries - Poland, Moldova, Lithuania and Romania. Before the Russian invasion, the EU was already facing a refugee crisis due to the migrant inflow from Belarus and the English Channel; this only adds to their woes.

Fourth, efforts at strengthening the economy. Contributing to the wavering Euro, the EU leaders decided to increase their spending on Ukraine. Italy and France called for the issuance of a fresh joint debt which was firmly opposed by Germany and the Netherlands, citing unused funds from the EUR 800 billion pandemic recovery fund. Nonetheless, the declaration suggests a European investment plan along with a phased bond-purchasing program by the European Central Bank (ECB). Several other measures were also suggested to rebuild the economy despite the crisis.

Fifth, towards armaments. The summit was a watershed moment in the bloc’s history, given its decision to arm an ongoing conflict. Since the Russian invasion, the bloc has approved EUR 1.5 billion in defence aid to Ukraine. Although collective security has always been NATO’s forte, the bloc realized the need to be self-reliant. Macron, championing the European Defense Union, stated that it was time for the EU to be serious about its defence spending. Even the historically neutral Sweden, via its Prime Minister, backed this along with a hesitant Germany. 

What does it mean?
First, the consensus and divide. The war in Ukraine has raised what the EU stands for while it reconsiders its economic, defence and energy policies. Although the leaders bickered over a few issues, a larger consensus remained regarding fundamentals such as strategic autonomy, economy-building and condemnation of Russian aggression. Simultaneously, there was also a divide in individual policies regarding energy and joint debt issuances. The bloc will need to get its act together and showcase a united front in its response to Russia.

Second, the lack of response from Ukraine. Ukraine is yet to respond to the declaration and the comments made by leaders at the summit. Given that the country hoped to receive a positive reply regarding their accession appeal, their response will be noteworthy. The brunt of the Russian aggression is borne by Ukraine alone, the lack of a guaranteed membership will only make the path forward tough.