25 March 2022

Can the EU defend Ukraine?

By William Nattrass

Speaking via video link to the Italian parliament on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the need for ‘reconstruction of Ukraine after this war. Together with you, together with Italy. Together with Europe. Together – in the European Union.’

Ukraine wants the European Union – and if statements by EU leaders are anything to go by, the EU wants Ukraine too. There can, meanwhile, be little doubt about Zelensky’s assertion that Ukraine has ‘earned’ EU membership after its inspiring fight for national sovereignty – if that’s what the country wants. But those within the bloc calling for Ukraine to join, either now or at some vague point in the future, will eventually have to grapple with the considerable can of worms which the proposition opens up.

The fattest of these worms goes by the name of Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union. This mutual defence clause says that ‘if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power’. This sounds similar to NATO’s Article 5 on collective defence – but the EU text goes on to say that mutual defence obligations ‘shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states’.

The vague nature of the article allows ‘neutral’ states to join the bloc. Yet the article’s lack of punch has also caused frustration: Finnish President Sauli Niinistö complained last weekend that Article 42.7 is ‘stronger than [NATO’s] Article 5 in expression, but behind that we don’t find much’. A new military strategy white paper released by the EU this week only asserts that ‘we will continue to invest in our mutual assistance under Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union’. It was triggered by France after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, but its true weight has never been tested in a full-scale international conflict.

That leaders can flatly reject Ukraine’s calls for NATO intervention but cheer on the country’s accession to the EU suggests they don’t set much store by the bloc’s mutual defence obligations. Yet if Ukraine really is going to join the EU, the bloc will urgently need to figure out whether its union extends to collective defence or not: especially given a professed intention to become a ‘fully fledged European Defence Union by 2025′. A lack of clarity about what exactly the rest of the EU would be obliged to do if Ukraine were attacked as a member state creates obvious potential for misunderstanding – from Ukrainians themselves, and perhaps even worse, from the Kremlin.

This lack of clarity is cause for concern because while doing little to alter the situation on the ground, emotive assertions that Ukraine ‘belongs in the EU’ set a clear path for the future. If Ukraine survives the war as a sovereign nation, the EU will have to put the process of granting it membership status in motion. In light of what’s been said in recent weeks, there seems to be no rowing back on this.

But the heat of war has obscured other questions too. Brussels is already keen to pump money into the ‘reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine’ – but prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was criticized for levels of corruption far more serious than those seen in any current EU member state. In 2021, Transparency International found Ukraine to be only marginally less corrupt than Russia itself – and the organization uncovered evidence that the country’s anti-corruption standards were getting worse, not better.

Of course, corruption is a peripheral concern amid attempts by Russia to completely deny Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Yet if the country’s attempts to join the EU become reality, the issue will sooner or later rear its head – and when it does, it will significantly complicate the bloc’s existing priorities. How, for example, could Brussels justify withholding funds for Poland and Hungary over alleged ‘rule of law’ breaches, while simultaneously pouring money into Ukraine? Corruption and nepotism are serious concerns in both those countries, but few would suggest they come anywhere near the problems seen in Ukraine prior to the war.

Indeed, Ukrainian EU membership would provide the perfect ammunition for states like Hungary to fight back against Brussels’ punitive agenda. A cynic might even speculate whether such Machiavellian considerations influenced Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s endorsement of Ukraine joining the bloc, which came as something of a surprise given his Fidesz party’s frosty relations with Kyiv and rejection of any steps which might drag Hungary into the present conflict.

EU federalists and rule-of-law crusaders are used to dealing in impractical moral absolutes: those not for European integration and ‘EU values’ are against the bloc in its entirety. But welcoming Ukraine as a paragon of democracy while simultaneously exacting retribution for corruption elsewhere would require some particularly impressive mental gymnastics.

Ukraine deserves EU membership – but its accession would change the fabric of the bloc. And while calls for the country’s accession are being made with fervour, difficult questions need answering if these are to be more than mere empty words.

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William Nattrass is a British expat living in Prague

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.