|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
The geopolitical situation on the European continent is at a critical crossroads before the end of 2023. Forecasts related to the dynamics of geostrategic interactions depend on the continuity of the solidarity of the European Union (EU) with Ukraine, in particular in relation with Russia's conventional and hybrid attacks. The intensity of the EU's commitment in the coming months will arise from the response to four key challenges: (1) Russian military tactics against Ukraine during the winter; (2) the speed with which the southern neighbourhood of the EU is stabilised; (3) social resilience in European states facing risks of political radicalisation; but also (4) the pre-election mood in the US.
In line with Russia's war logic, exploiting winter and waging a war of energy attrition against Ukrainian infrastructure are once again in the foreground. There are already signs that Russian airstrikes are targeting Ukraine's energy sector, more actively than the port capabilities in the Odesa region (Reuters, November 2023). Managing the crisis in the Middle East while effectively protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank during Israel's military intervention is absorbing the EU's attention and resources. There is a clear interest on the part of Brussels in turning this crisis into an opportunity to advocate for the formalization of the Palestinian state (Politico, November 2023). At the same time, the violent anti-immigration outbursts in Dublin, the right-wing anti-government protests in Spain against the amnesty of Catalan separatist leaders or the victory of the Eurosceptics in the Dutch elections reveal some structural vulnerabilities of the EU. A few months before the European parliamentary elections in the summer of 2024, Brussels will propose solutions to prevent the rise of Eurosceptics, emphasizing the issue of migration. Last but not least, the proactive nature of the EU in terms of foreign policy will be influenced by the pre-electoral context in the United States, where the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans raises some doubts about the sustainability of the current harmony in transatlantic relations.
The unpredictability of the external environment brings the issue of pro-Ukrainian solidarity to the forefront of debates in Brussels and other European capitals. The EU's solidarity with Kyiv can be measured both from a financial point of view and from that of European integration. Although not to the same extent, both files matter. These dimensions can have a positive influence on each other or, on the contrary, can intoxicate each other, if the EU does not address them in a comprehensive and complementary way.
Geopolitical fatigue in the EU and the Ukrainian file
Since February 2022, European solidarity with Ukraine in defense against Russian aggression has been predictable in the EU's foreign strategies. This is based on virtually total solidarity within the 27 EU states, with the exception of Hungary. The uniformity of support for Ukraine within the EU broadly reflects popular support at the European level. Although in the spring of 2023 there were some slight signs of waning public sympathy for Brussels' reactions to Russia's aggression, most Europeans sided with Ukraine. Thus, European public support for EU strategies in relation to Ukraine varies between 60% and 85% depending on the area of intervention (Eurobarometer, July 2023). The highest support is for EU humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees (88% in July compared to 91% in February 2023), and the lowest is for the delivery of military equipment (64% in July compared to 65% in February 2023). In any case, the changes in attitude are minor and the majority of European public opinion positively perceives the EU aid offered to the Ukrainian side.
However, a certain geopolitical fatigue is brewing regarding the Ukrainian cause, which combines nationalist and protectionist reactions in sensitive areas (in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary), such as grain access to the EU market. More recently, opposition has intensified to increasing the number of permits for Ukrainian truck carriers operating in the EU, whose number has multiplied from 165,000 in February 2022 to approximately 1 million today. Pessimistic signals can also be intercepted regarding the availability of financial resources in the EU and the crystallization of budget deficits in some European capitals. At the European level, we are talking about Hungary's opposition to the establishment of a new financing mechanism for Ukraine until the end of 2027, in the amount of 50 billion euros. A viable alternative solution could be direct borrowing by the national governments of EU states, although this may lead to some unexpected budget pressures. The aid promised by some European States to Ukraine in 2024 (Germany and the Netherlands) refers to military assistance for a total amount of about 3.6 billion euros. However, there is uncertainty about the ability of certain national governments to allocate financial resources to Ukraine's needs, which were previously provided through European financial instruments. The first case in this regard concerns Germany's budget deficit, which amounts to 60 billion euros. This budget change could lead to a drastic review of spending in 2024 for the "green transition", the critical chip industry, but also for social subsidies in the energy field (Politico, November 2023).
Aiming to reduce or even eliminate obstacles related to Ukraine's financing, EU officials are preparing a new legal framework that will allow the use of profits from Russian assets frozen in the EU, worth almost 200 billion euros (Bloomberg, November 2023). If materialized, the new mechanism will arise from the legal effects of the sanctions applied against Russia. Both the finalization of legislation that would legalize the confiscation of the proceeds of Russian money blocked in the EU, and the 12th package of sanctions, could materialize at the end of 2023 or even in the first months of 2024. The creativity demonstrated by the EU in identifying alternative financial resources is missing in the area of European integration, where political unanimity is needed to advance the pre-accession dialogue with Ukraine.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: EU enlargement towards the East as "one-package" or separately?
In early November, the European Commission assessed that Ukraine and Moldova were sufficiently prepared to start accession negotiations, although it indicated that not all conditions had been fully implemented. At the same time, the Commission established a series of requirements (nine in total) that Georgia must implement to obtain candidate country status. Although the EU is currently focusing on the eastern dimension of enlargement policy, Brussels is aware that the Western Balkans must remain on the agenda. Therefore, probably even at the insistence of Austria, which actively promotes Balkan accession negotiations (FT, November 2023), the EU decided to give a positive signal for the eventual start of accession negotiations for Bosnia and Herzegovina (EU, November 2023).
In fact, the EU must combine old priorities with new emergencies related to enlargement. For this reason, enlargement policy is inevitably divided into two "dimensions", even under the roof of the same enlargement package. Added to the multiple speeds in the field of reforms are structural problems in the Balkans, of an interstate and interethnic order, which differ from those caused directly by the Russian factor in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The EU's policies towards these two enlargement regions are separated from Turkiye, the tenth candidate country. European actors are forced to increase symmetry in their policy towards Turkiye, as a result of Ankara’s growing geopolitical weight (Euronews, November 2023).
The configuration of two different blocs in the scope of EU enlargement is determined by two sets of local realities and preconditions, respectively. On the one hand, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are part of the Associated Trio, the most advanced and Europeanizable group of countries in the Eastern Partnership. Although they have implemented Association Agreements with the EU, they are currently surpassed by the Western Balkan countries (Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in multiple fields. The EU's ambitions and assistance to the Western Balkans channeled pre-accession resources that enabled its greater alignment with European standards. On the other hand, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have territorial integrity problems due to separatism and occupation promoted by Russia (BneIntellinews, July 2023). This aspect reinforces the argument that the three Eastern Partnership countries are close, even from the point of view of structural constraints and risks.
The distinctive characteristics of these regions in the course of European integration raise the question of whether the future wave of expansion will consist of a "package" approach within the same region or not. At least until 2030, the EU will be tempted to examine these regions separately. In the past, enlargements occurred both "in package" (Romania and Bulgaria in January 2007) and individually (Croatia in July 2013). Although both models remain applicable, the final decision will rest with the EU and the candidate countries of the Western Balkans and those of the Eastern Partnership.
The multiple interdependencies between Ukraine and Moldova (security, energy, transport, etc.), but also Romania's support for the Moldovan file in the pre-accession process, could incline Kyiv to pragmatically consider a possible "in package" approach with Moldova. First of all, the Ukrainian side notes that there is broad European support for the current political government in Chisinau. Since Moldova can open doors in Brussels and European capitals, the partnership with Moldova is compatible with Ukraine's strategic interests. The second important aspect, which favors the scenario of a Moldovan-Ukrainian combination in the area of EU accession, is related to the fact that the Moldovan authorities used the Ukrainian issue to preserve their public legitimacy in Moldova and build an image favorable internationally. The solidarity shown by the Moldovan side towards Ukraine (refugees, transport flows, etc.) has become an investment in the credibility of the Moldovan government within the EU. Consequently, Moldova's European course is significantly influenced by the alliance and alignment with Kyiv. The third and final major factor consists of the overly optimistic belief that Moldova can quickly reform itself to meet the accession criteria. Therefore, Ukraine's leaders could count on the fact that accession to a leading country in terms of European integration could have indirect positive effects on Ukraine's negotiations with Brussels. All the mentioned arguments make the government in Chisinau more interested in going "in package" with Ukraine than alone. Even Kyiv shows no signs that it would like to separate from Moldova in the enlargement process pragmatic and strategic reasons.
Georgia is not currently part of the same "package", which has two options: support the need to restore relations and trust at the level of the Associated Trio or develop an individual pre-accession strategy. Armenia's interest in deepening European integration could persuade Georgia not to aim for integration in a "package" with Ukraine and Moldova, but to develop a separate direction in the EU enlargement process, in the European-Caucasian dimension. Hungary's opposition and other irritants observed in the current discussions on the start of Ukraine's accession negotiations could become a signal to Georgia about the risks related to a possible "one-package" participation with Ukraine, which the Moldovan government does not seem to consider.
In lieu of conclusions
There are at least two levels of solidarity that will dictate the direction of the EU's geopolitical orientation in relation to its eastern neighborhood: military-financial support for defense efforts and political-strategic support in the area of Ukraine's European accession. These dimensions of the EU-Ukraine relationship contain a considerable degree of interdependence and their dysfunctions can have cascading effects on other areas and other actors. Negative or delayed decisions in Brussels can take on a cross-border character with strategic costs for everyone except Russia and its openly manifesting and hidden allies.
On the one hand, any major blockade in terms of financial and/or military assistance to Kyiv could be exploited by Russia to intensify the offensive and force an "artificial and dangerous peace" in Ukraine. The geopolitical fatigue of the EU and the entire West may be a determining factor for that peace. At the same time, on the other hand, preventing the opening of accession negotiations in the case of Ukraine could generate broader paralysis. Since Ukraine's pre-accession dialogue appears to be "coupled" with negotiations aimed at Moldova, the latter may become a collateral victim. The same negative effect will not affect Georgia, which, although it is in a "geopolitical package" with the other two countries of the Associated Trio, is a few steps behind and may decide to decouple.
Finally, the EU is forced to manage the Ukrainian file as effectively as possible so as not to compromise its expansion policy in its entirety, not only on the eastern dimension. With the same dose of concern, European actors must counter any signs of geopolitical fatigue by offering a clear vision of strengthening solidarity with Ukraine and preventing any sort of forced peace favorable to Russia. The EU's failure in both processes will create preconditions for the restoration of Russian influence in the Eastern Partnership and beyond this region.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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