László Andor / May 2022
The cruel war Russia launched against Ukraine at the end of February has quickly become the most destructive one seen in Europe since the end of World War Two. The post-Yugoslav wars in the 1990s were tragic and consequential, and their scale and significance should not be underestimated. But now we are witnessing a drama with different dimensions. The loss of lives, the crowds of refugees and the damage to productive assets and physical infrastructure appear apocalyptic, not least because the end of conflict does not seem to be in sight. However, the deeper the tragedy, the bolder the imagination has to be when it comes to charting a new direction for the nation under attack but also for the entire continent.
Scale of destruction and suffering
It will take some time to establish exactly how many victims this war has had, and reliable figures will only emerge once the war is over. After two months of fighting, we can probably speak about tens of thousands of soldiers dead for both Russia and Ukraine, and a comparable number of civilian deaths among Ukrainians. Alongside death, injuries can be horrific beyond belief, especially when even hospitals are under artillery attack.
The invasion on 24 February might have been a shock, but many Ukrainians knew immediately that fleeing is the best way to save their lives. By the end of April, more than 12 million Ukrainians are believed to have fled their homes. Close to half of that number left the country, with Poland having received just over half of all Ukrainian refugees.
Having seen the material destruction, discussions about the cost of reconstruction have started. The damage to infrastructure was deemed to amount to €60 billion by the World Bank in April, and such numbers are growing by the day. European Investment Bank (EIB) President Werner Hoyer already voiced his view that the sums needed for the reconstruction – coming together from public and private sources – will be „beyond imagination”. A recent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) estimates the cost of the war between €200 billion and €500 billion.
It has also been pointed out right after the beginning of the invasion that this will be a local war with global effects. First of all, there is a world wide impact on food supply, threatening the return of famine in poorer countries that have been importing Ukrainian or Russian grain. According to the World Food Programme, 276 million people worldwide faced "acute hunger" before the war began and if it drags on into the summer of 2022 another 27 to 33 million may find themselves in that precarious position.
Given the direct and indirect effects of the war on the rest of Europe and indeed the entire world, Ukrainians believe themselves to be fighting for more than just their own independence. And the rest of Europe has committed to support, and even more commitments are expected in the future. After the Russian attack, the government of Ukraine decided to submit its application for membership in the European Union. An exchange of documents took place, and the visit of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell bears great significance. However, not all visits are equally helpful to fulfil the future ambitions of Ukraine.
Parade of faux friends
Kyiv became a city to visit for a great variety of political leaders, but some of these are not necessarily representatives of the European spirit, and may not be able to help with Ukrainians’ long-term endeavour. Especially when we see the arrival of political figures with damaged reputations who want to gain some kind of moral capital out of their handshake with President Zelensky. A visit to Kyiv is normally an expression of solidarity and support, but very often it is also an exercise in gaining some fame and popularity by association with genuine heros.
One high level guest who was given a warm welcome in Kyiv is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. If there was a prize to the politician who has lied the most about the European Union, he would have won it for sure. Johnson is not only a notorious liar but someone who violated the laws he imposed on the British people under the Covid-19 crisis and in the last six months this scandal has been the main discussion topic of UK politics. Johnson is preparing to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement, and it is a question whether for the EU he can ever be again a trustworthy international partner. Ukrainians having left or planning to leave their country should pay attention to the refugee policy of the Johnson government, which includes plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Another dubious figure is Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister of Poland, who has manoeuvered his country to the edge of Polexit, following assaults on the independence of the judiciary and the failure to accept that EU law is superior to national law. Since the 2016 UK referendum the Polish government has filled the void left behind by the British as the most euro-sceptic one in the bloc, They have opposed some of the key EU initiatives including on climate policy, and lived up to their reputation when their authorities started to apply selection on a racial basis when refugees from Ukraine arrived in large numbers. The apalling gender policy of Morawiecki’s government will also be felt by Ukrainian refugee women who fell victim of Russian rape during the war.
Together with Morawiecki, Slovenian prime minister Janez Jansa travelled to Kyiv too. As a leader of a smaller EU country, he has not received too much attention in recent years, until the recent EU Council presidency of his country. Inside Slovenia, however, it is well known that Jansa as prime minister was not only turning his country into a subsidiary of the autocratic regime of Viktor Orbán, but only increased his collaboration with various far-right groups like the successors of the Croatian Ustasha. He even endorsed the ideas of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. In April, parliamentary elections were held in Slovenia, in which the centre-left opposition has prevailed. The trip to Kyiv and the handshake of Zelensky did not save Jansa from falling from grace. He lost the general elections in April against a party that was only formed last year.
Why is actual EU membership not within reach?
Faux friends, typically representing right wing parties from countries geographically close to Ukraine (including Hungary), often express support for Ukraine’s EU membership. They don’t mind if by doing this they are only creating false hopes and sow the seeds of future controversies. The patriotic sacrifice of Ukraine is appreciated by all and doubted by nobody. But, contrary to what many citizens, diplomats and enthusiasts of Ukraine might believe, this has very little direct connection with actual EU membership.
First of all, one has to appreciate that there is a queue. The countries of the Western Balkans have been participating in the enlargement process for some time, and the Western Balkans region has been peaceful for over two decades. The accession process is supposed to be based on merit and performance and, like many other aspects of EU functioning, this has much more objectivity in it than many would believe.
From a legal perspective, the starting point is still the set of the famous ’Copenhagen criteria’ originating in 1993. Shortly after the European Union was formed, the bloc clarified under what conditions it is ready to admit further members. They simultaneously focus on qualities of the political system, economic competitiveness as well as legal harmonisation. This approach has been guiding EU enlargement ever since, and is unlikely to change.
When exactly the reconstruction effort will bring Ukraine to the level of a ’competitive market economy’ can only be a subject of speculation at this stage. But those who pretend that the speed of joining the European Union primarily depends on the swiftness of paperwork in Brussels, unintendedly mislead others but probably mislead themselves too.
In recent years, the EU has found it hard to move ahead with the integration of rather small countries like Montenegro or North Macedonia. Croatia became an EU member 18 years after the end of the war it was involved in, and without being ruined by its adversaries. Ukraine is much larger and, despite the great potential of the national economy, overall it is not in a better position now than at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. It actually came close to what is usually called a ’failed state’.
What one should also bear in mind is that with every round of enlargement European policy makers have to face the fact that for the admission of new members it is not only the applicants that have to be well prepared but also the EU itself. The size of the European Parliament and the allocation of seats, or the practice of delegating an EU commissioner by each country are all up for discussions, and those can be long and complex before another actual enlargement round can take place.
The size and structure of the EU budget, with the balance between net contributing and net recipient countries at its heart, is an equally critical question. Membership of a low income and to a great extent agricultural country like Ukraine would redefine the Common Agricultural Policy and Cohesion Policy as we know them today (and these two policies represent two thirds of the EU budget). Hence, it is just very unwise to replace the undeliverable promise of NATO membership with the undeliverable promise of EU membership. Something else – more creative but also more realistic – has to be developed.
Men with a plan
Enrico Letta, former Prime Minister of Italy and current leader of the Italian Democratic Party (PD) has put forward and is popularising the idea of a European Confederation – a new organisation that could be established within one year. This is part of a plan to speed up simultaneous deepening and widening of the integration. The existing EU would need to deepen in altogether seven fields, including defence, energy and social, while we would create a Confederation which would include the EU but also countries of the Western Balkans plus Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the East.
Emmanuel Macron in his post-reelection Strasbourg speech (on 9 May) fleshed out the idea of a European Political Community, bringing together democratic nations of Europe focusing on common security, energy and transport. He linked this proposal to a more than 30 years old idea of his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, who responded to the fall of the Iron Curtain with a certain confederal concept. This wider organisation could be helpful for those who one day would join the federal core itself, but also the United Kingdom which left the EU two years ago, finds it hard to cope with the consequences, and may at least partly reconsider in a not too distant future.
The Confederation (or Political Community) would not need to be something entirely separate from the European Union. According to Letta, every meeting of the European Council would be accompanied by a consecutive meeting of the heads of state and government of the European Confederation. But if we only create one more intergovernmental round table in Brussels or Strasbourg, we have not solved much. There is a need for new content as well as new symbols. For the seat of the new body, one should consider a city with historic symbolism in the East, e.g. Kraków, Bratislava or Cluj-Napoca.
To build on Letta’s plan, one could propose to the EU to transfer its main consultative bodies to the Confederation. Namely, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. Through participating in these advisory bodies, the Confederation members would be able to excercise influence over EU decision making as well. Participating in these two committees would allow aspiring members to develop a sense of two pivotal features of EU integration: regionalism and tripartism. The Committee of the Regions could actually be boosted by adding an environmental dimension and one to focus on the quality of public administration. Critical activities to facilitate upward convergence before actual EU membership could focus on the fight against corruption, the reform of oligarchic economies, the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities as well as the fight against extremism.
There are many in Europe, who do not consider these two instututions very important, and for sure there are many who are not even aware of their existence. By transferring them to the Confederation, they could attain a strategic role in the context of EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies while continuing their main mission. Today perhaps the most important for the EU is to concentrate on creating peace and preparing for reconstruction, and creating the financial and institutional conditions for the reconstruction to start as soon as possible. To successfully perform these tasks, the EU should deepen rather than surrender its strategic autonomy, and respond to the tragedies of our time with courage and creativity.