The EU and Ukraine: A Good Crisis Going to Waste?



The coat of arms of the EU Military Staff

 Ben Berry examines the opportunities created by the Ukrainian crisis, and Russian aggression, to strengthen the EU and create a United States of Europe

Students of formal logic will tell you that “Slippery Slope” arguments are a fallacy. Yet, there is a special place where such logic seems not to matter: Brussels. In EU circles, the theory of functionalism, a sort of inverted slippery slope, describes a route to a United States of Europe. Functionalists believe that each step towards European union will create the conditions needed for the next. At the bottom of the functionalists’ Slippery Slope is a federal Europe, their ultimate goal; sliding down the Slope is something to look forward to, not fear. For example, if the EU is to have a true Single Market, then that market should have a common policy on imports and exports. Since trade policy is a type of foreign policy, the EU should have a diplomatic service and a unified foreign policy.

The on-going crisis in Ukraine has revealed problems with the idea of European foreign policy. German and Italian officials recommend understanding and engaging with Vladimir Putin’s government. Britain and Poland support ever-tougher sanctions against Moscow. National leaders remain in the driver’s seat and the EU has been unable to effect events, despite being one of the largest suppliers of diplomatic and financial assistance to Ukraine. In an interview with Die Welt, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker prescribed the functionalist panacea: more Europe[1]. Specifically, Mr Junker suggests that the EU develop a military capacity of its own, an idea with much to argue for it. Joseph Nye, an American academic, writes that nations can exercise power in two ways: hard or soft. Hard power is military force; soft power is diplomacy and economic incentives. Nye goes on to add that the best powers exercise “smart power”, using a combination of hard and soft power that will work best in the given situation. The EU has used numerous soft power tools in Ukraine: loans, diplomatic support, an Association Agreement, etc. But, without a military capacity, the EU cannot exercise hard, or by extension smart, power. Without a military, the EU might be termed a “dumb power”.

This introduces the question of whether or not military power would be the EU’s best option in Ukraine. After all, smart power is all about knowing when to use one’s military strength. Surely, no one is advocating that Europe invade Russia. But in international politics, gestures can be as important as actions. Poland and the Baltic States have asked NATO to deploy troops on their territory. Yet, the U.S. has been unwilling to do this, prioritizing Asia and the Middle East over Europe. If the EU could lead this effort, it would augment its influence in Eastern Europe and consequently send a message to Moscow that Poland and the Baltic States cannot become another Ukraine. The message that an EU force would send to Washington would be almost as important. It would show that the EU is ready to step out of America’s shadow and that Europe is no longer the junior partner in the Western Alliance.

However, being America’s junior partner is a lucrative position. European countries are able to free-ride on America’s $750 billion (£510 billion) per year military budget. In this time of austerity, it is difficult to imagine European leaders asking their electorates to begin paying for their defense. Even if an EU military were in the interests of Europeans, convincing anyone to join it would be difficult. Few people can be bothered to vote for Europe, let alone die for it.

Whether or not anyone would die for Europe introduces another question; do nations build armies or do armies build nations? Eric Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian, argues that Europe’s nations were artificially constructed by its rulers to entice its people to fight. This fighting in turn became the national founding myths that strengthened national identity and made Europeans more willing to fight. An EU army for freedom and self-determination standing up against illiberal and neo-imperialist Russia could serve as the United States of Europe’s founding myth, echoing the other United States’ struggle for freedom and self-determination against a much more traditional type of imperialism. If the creation of an EU army lead to a strong European identity, it would be the last step in the slide down the functionalists’ Slippery Slope. This may sound fanciful, but they are called founding myths, not founding academic papers.

If the EU can deftly navigate the crisis in Ukraine, it stands to benefit enormously. If it can navigate the crisis impeccably, it could even become a full-fledged nation. Yet, Brussels is not a place known for long-termism or decisive crisis handling. A bold EU leader would seize this opportunity to complete the European Project, but an ordinary one would be perfectly happy to retain Europe’s imperfect internal structure and international standing. When deciding which route the EU will ultimately choose, it would be helpful to note that the heroes of national founding myths—from Moses to Mandela—have a certain sense of vision that is decidedly lacking in Angela Merkel.

Ben Berry is a BA student of Politics and International Relations student at New College of the Humanities, London


[1] (in German): http://m.welt.de/newsticker/news1/article138177624/EU-Kommissionspraesident-Juncker-fuer-europaeische-Armee.html

An explainer in English: http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-31796337



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