Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brings forward questions about European Union’ potential of becoming a security guarantor for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and specifically for the Associated Trio countries: Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. The EaP was designed by the EU to help 6 countries address political and economic challenges that they face and in this way support their aspirations for closer ties with the Union (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus). The EaP came with the bonus of Association Agreements which also includes DCFTA (deep and comprehensive free trade agreements) – a highly ambitious document that expects a wide range of reforms to be implemented by the signatory countries, such as the Associated Trio. The democratization reform agenda in the three countries is dictated by the provisions of the Association Agenda that aims at regulatory approximation to the EU, political association, and economic integration.
European integration as security guarantees
The integration of neighbouring countries into the EU’s security community has been an on-going and largely silent process. Unlike traditional security communities such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, however, EU is primarily an economic security community whose operation and expansion is in the first instance based on successful functional economic integration followed by ‘spill-over’ dynamics triggering integration in more sensitive political areas. This philosophy is observed in its external relations: the Association Agreements where the DCFTA refers to the harmonization of 80-90% of the EU legislation confirms this. What the DCFTA successfully does, is to legally ‘lock’ Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia into the EU with full liberalization of the trade in goods, and to some extent also into the removal of barriers to the trade in services. It is perhaps not surprising that the integration of these countries into the EU’s economic security community is more advanced than in political terms. Obtaining security from Russia is a core interest for all three countries and their ability to overcome energy and geopolitical conflicts with Russia are quintessential to their national security. Despite having such an advanced reform agenda codified in the Association Agreements, the latter has not been obtained.
President Zelenskyy has signed an official application asking for EU membership while Russia was attacking Ukraine for 5 days in a row; on the next day both Georgia and Moldova followed the same course. Russia’s consistent destructive actions in these countries in combination with the prospects of joining NATO being off the table, led the Associated Trio to seek EU candidate status as a security guarantee. Pulling themselves out of Russia’s orbits, solidifying a bond with the EU is a way-out from Russia’s territorial aggression over these countries as well as securing energy independence and their political positions internally. The trade-off between value and interest-based considerations in EU’s foreign policy on Eastern Europe have significant repercussions for the EU today when it needs to demonstrate political will to respond to the requests of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova of a fast-track candidate status.
Is it all geopolitics or geoeconomics?
Meanwhile the leaders of the European Union are faced with a huge task: to transform their geopolitical stance by combining geopolitics with geoeconomics in reshaping the European security order. Since 24 February 2022, EU leaders are debating plans over the Union’s energy dependence on Russia in combination with discussions over its defence capabilities. Moreover, for the first time EU is taking action by sending military equipment to a third country and imposing the harshest sanctions on Russia thus far. Since February 22 EU member-states adopted five packages of sanctions, each package extending its scope. Even Hungary’s government, a big supporter of Putin, supported these sanctions emphasizing that EU unity is paramount. Moreover, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is stimulating the EU military drive. Putin managed what no German politician in the post-Cold war ever succeed: to direct Germany on the path of becoming a military power. Germany had step up its own defence capabilities by setting up a special fund for armed forces (the Bundeswehr) and providing a one-off 100 billion Euro to be used in 2022 for necessary investments in military defence projects. And while Germany will spend more than 2% of its GDP for security matters, EU member-states that have been strongly opposing joining NATO such as Finland and Sweden have suddenly changed their positions. The neutral Swedish government pledged to deliver weapons to Ukraine, the Finnish government hosted parliamentary debates over joining NATO; and both have been granted access to NATO strategic communication and intelligence-sharing on coordinating a European response to the war.
An awakened EU as a regional security actor is long overdue but it remains overshadowed by the tendency of not wanting to ‘poke the Bear’. EU struggles to completely disconnect Russian banks from SWIFT as it spared two large financial institutions such as Sberbank and Gazprombank closely linked to the hydrocarbon sector, due to the strong dependence of several European states on Russian oil and gas. As SWIFT experts explain, for sanctions to have the intended effect, EU sanctions should target Gazprom and its banking facilities. Others also emphasize that sanctions did not stop Russian billionaires in supporting the Kremlin as these oligarchs find methods and instruments through which to sponsor Putin. And while Britain calls on all G7 member states to ban Russian oil and gas, as London and Washington do, Germany, France and Italy, part of the G7 are cautious in this regard as this puts EU energy security at risk.
It is under such circumstances that EU leaders are discussing the issue of enlargement at Versailles, about which member-states have historically disagreed. Clearly the EU can no longer manage its ‘peace anxieties’ with tools that would keep it in an anxious state. Since EU is building its own geopolitical security community – a construction of a powerful military European alliance that can secure the border with Russia – it fails to provide clear security guarantees for Ukraine (or Moldova, or Georgia). Instead of developing a political declaration that would recognize Ukraine’s future in the EU provided that it meets all accession conditionalities, the press reported that the European Commission is looking for vague terminology that would frame a ‘NO’. In their Statement, the EU Heads of State and Government have recognized the European choice of Ukraine and its belonging to the European family. But let’s make no mistake: as long as the framework of relations is the Association Agreement, this should not be interpreted as EU membership. And as long as EU leaders are buying oil & gas from Russia, they continue to indirectly sponsor the war. So, the puzzle remains: is EU genuine about offering security guarantees for Ukraine (and Moldova, and Georgia)?