Reports prepared by Federica Fazio and Davide Genini (Dublin City University)
On Thursday, 25th January 2024, the Brexit Institute hosted a high-level event on “EU Foreign and Security Policy: Two Years after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”. The event featured an opening keynote speech by Ms. Federica Mogherini, former EU High Representative for Foreign & Security Policy and Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and current Rector of the College of Europe. It was followed by a panel of experts, moderated by Dr. Christy Petit (Deputy Director of the Brexit Institute), featuring as speakers, Dr. Tanya Lokot (Associate Professor of Digital Media and Society), Dr. Ken McDonagh (Associate Professor of International Relations) and Prof. Federico Fabbrini (Full Professor of European Law and Founding Director of the Brexit Institute).
Rector Mogehrini was welcomed and introduced by President Daire Keogh (Dublin City University), who underscored that the war in Ukraine has produced huge implications and accelerations of numerous debates on integration, common policies, and particularly foreign and security policy. He emphasized how Russia is a threat not just to Ukraine but also to European values, and highlighted the role played by Ireland in welcoming Ukrainian refugees and providing non-military assistance after the conflict started. President Keogh also highlighted what DCU has done as an Irish academic institution. In November 2022, in partnership with the Embassy of Ukraine in Ireland, DCU hosted a live video address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, giving students from across Ireland the opportunity to engage directly with the president in a Q&A session and learn about how Russia’s illegal invasion has impacted Ukraine and its citizens. President Keogh went on to thank Prof. Federico Fabbrini and the Brexit Institute for its great work and gave the floor to Rector Mogherini, who provided the audience with unparalleled insights.
Federica Mogherini shared her thoughts and reflections on how the EU has reacted to the war in Ukraine. She started by reminding participants that the war actually began in 2014, rather than 2022. In 2022 it became a full-scale invasion, but the aggression and related plans had started in 2014. The aggression, the then-Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs recalled, came as a shock to the EU. This is because in 2013/2014 Russia was considered by the EU, as well as NATO, as a strategic partner. The EU had, therefore, to completely shift its mentality towards Russia: it went from dealing with a challenging strategic partnership to reacting to an aggression in the continent. This required coordination as some member states had stronger ties with Russia, including on energy and trade. It took EU member states several months to get on the same page and adopt the first package of sanctions, something which, Mogherini stressed, was quite revolutionary at the time, even though it might not seem so today.
The former High Representative then recalled when, on the occasion of a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in July 2014, held to discuss the EU position on the illegal annexation of Crimea, Putin talked for about an hour in the attempt to persuade her that the EU had no interests in standing by Ukraine. He explained how the country was ultimately set to implode socio-economically and become a failed stated. The Kremlin, Mogherini claimed, had a plan to dismantle neighboring Ukraine already back then. In Putin’s mind, Ukraine would prove to be so irreformable and become so weak that the EU would just abandon it, and then Russia could easily take it. Instead, the EU, together with the Ukrainian leadership, elaborated a counterplan and was able to counteract the Kremlin’s agenda. When asking ourselves what more could the EU have done between 2014-2022, according to Ms. Mogherini, there are many issues that need to be taken into account. The military dimension is only one element. There are many other aspects to consider, from propaganda and disinformation to corruption, as these too were part of a strategy aimed at dismantling the credibility and solidity of Ukrainian institutions.
In light of these considerations, it is Mogherini’s belief that the EU at the time did the right thing. Unity on sanctions was hard to achieve and the Kremlin (mis)calculated that it would not last, but it has. And on the financial side, the EU put together a package with no precedent in the history of the Union. It was the largest financial support package put in place for any country. Some member states were reluctant to admit this out loud at the time because they thought it would be counterproductive and make them lose public support. It is unquestionable that EU financial support has helped Ukraine build a certain level of resilience, making it a completely different country today compared to 2014. It has allowed the country to become strong enough and better prepared for today’s challenges. The reform agenda and the financial package, therefore, were key in giving Ukraine the confidence to start rebuilding its institutions.
Fast forward to 2022, which was, according to Mogherini, one of those moments when the EU acted fast, united and in a very relevant manner. The Union put together an incredible combination of policies and resources. First of all, the sanction regime. Mogherini has no doubts that sanctions are having an impact on the Russian economy. However, the paradox with sanctions, she contended, is their effects on the economy and decision-making of the government they are directed against is directly proportional to its public accountability. In other words, although Putin could not care less about the state of the Russian economy, the packages are certainly curtailing the country’s ability to wage war. Sanctions also send a clear message to the Russian society and the economic elite that they have something to lose. There is an element of pollical signaling: even if EU member states have interests with Russia, they care so much about the situation in Ukraine that they are ready and willing to adopt very strong measures. So, there is the effect on the resources and the signaling of political unity. The EU, Mogherini stressed, is proving to be not just a payer, something which it has been accused of in the past, but also a player. After all, paying is a big part of playing and it is a signal of political commitment. Maintaining this level of financial support will be challenging though because it requires a tremendous amount of financial resources. Also, it is one thing to “pay alone” and another to “pay with partners”. “What will be of the EU budget? And will we be alone or will the Americans be with us?”, Mogherini rhetorically asked the audience. This very much depends on the outcome of the US presidential elections in November.
During her tenure as High Representative, Ms. Mogherini put the basis for the European defense pillar, by activating the related tools provided in the Lisbon treaty. When she established the European Peace Facility (EPF), there was a huge debate about why the EU should go into that direction. She managed to convince the European Parliament that the instrument was perfectly in line with EU priorities and that it would be a budget with very limited scope. That it would be used to provide this kind of support to Ukraine is something she could never have foreseen. It is clear then that the EU has the capacity to adapt and react quickly, going in unforeseen directions. Although it is often depicted as very bureaucratic and slow, divided and not particularly relevant, the Union reacted fast, united and in a very relevant way to Russia’s full-scale aggression of Ukraine. Economic and military support were crucial. A military alliance, NATO could not have been dragged into providing that kind of support. So the EU had to do something NATO could not do and, in so doing, it broke a taboo: that of delivering military support to a third country. The fact that the European policy shift has been accompanied by domestic policy shifts (Germany is a case in point), seems to suggest to Ms. Mogherini that the EU and its member states are likely to continue to support Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is now an existential threat to Europe, so they have no other choice that to continue to invest in defense and the development of their military capabilities.
This is not without risks though. Mogherini expressed worry that, in developing military capabilities, the EU risks losing track of the diplomatic side. “There is a risk that we act as a pendulum,” Mogherini cautioned. “We have been on the soft side of the spectrum and have shifted towards developing military capabilities. The risk is that we lose the diplomatic, soft power side. Hard power is a complement, not an alternative to soft power tools. You might have military tools and capabilities, but alone they will never solve a conflict. You also need the diplomatic and political side”.
Humanitarian and political support, Mogherini believes, were also very important aspects in the EU’s response to the war. Political support to Ukraine and the mobilization of this support worldwide have been absolutely crucial and the EU took on a leading role in that respect. Mogherini though admitted that the EU has made mistakes as well. Portraying the war as a return to the Cold War logic and the East-West dichotomy is definitely one of them. She stressed how this war is different from past wars because it ticks all the boxes of violation of international law: it is a territorial invasion of a neighboring country done by a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. As such, it has destroyed the remaining credibility of the core part of the multilateral governance system. It was wrong of the EU to put the accent more on Western values than on respect of international law. It would have been wiser to avoid any references to the West as a category of analysis.
Finally, Ms. Mogherini pointed out that offering EU membership to Ukraine is perhaps the most important element of EU support. EU membership is the ultimate guarantee for Ukraine. Interestingly enough, the former EU High Representative is convinced that Russia would never attack a member of the EU, regardless of whether it is also a NATO ally.
In terms of the implications of the war, Mogherini is sure that the EU is here to stary for Ukraine and that this support will not change, whatever the results of the upcoming European elections might be. “We are bound together”, she said, “It is a commitment for the long term”. It is also clear that the EU will not stay at 27 for long and is ready to complete the integration of the continent. In her state of the Union speech last September, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen stated “In a world where size and weight matters, it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interests to complete our Union”. The opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine also revitalized the enlargement perspective for the Balkans. Not opening to North Macedonia and Albania in 2019 was a mistake, according to Ms. Mogherini. With enlargement, the EU will need to embark on a serious reflection on its future. All policies, not just foreign and security policy, will need profound revision if the EU grows by 5 or 10 members. She concluded her keynote address on a very positive note by stating that, as a result of the war in Ukraine, the EU will advance, and not just in the field of security and defense, and grow stronger and bigger.
Tanya Lokot (Dublin City University) began by noting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s resistance have been at the center of EU-related media and public debates over the past two years. Media coverage has recognised the pluralistic role of Ukraine’s actions in the defense of European security, as well as the EU as a powerful actor in the defense of the European democratic space. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created new conditions for disinformation and manipulation in EU public debates. For example, social media platforms are increasingly becoming a portal for polarizing discourses that seek to divide public society on key issues such as migration, military neutrality, security threats and the economy. In this scenario, the EU’s promotion of stronger media freedom policies that demand transparency and accountability must be seen as only a first step in ensuring a coherent security vision based on democratic values. It is equally important that EU Member States remain committed to their military and reconstruction assistance to Ukraine, uphold international sanctions packages, and press for justice using all available means or creating new ones where necessary.
Kenneth McDonagh (Dublin City University) noted that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is the continuation of a war that Russia started in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea. This war shows that the EU has failed in its previous enlargement and neighborhood policies. Since 2022, the EU has taken unprecedented action in a number of areas as a result of very close intergovernmental cooperation. In this sense, we should ask whether this is the exception or the rule. Within the EU’s response, Ireland has remained militarily neutral but has not shied away from condemning Russia’s invasion and providing trade and non-military aid to Ukraine. He concluded by saying that the war in Ukraine is undoubtedly a challenge to the future of the EU and the viability of the international system, and that the EU must do all it can to ensure that Ukraine wins.
Federico Fabbrini (Dublin City University and founding director of the Brexit Institute) noted that the war in Ukraine was a turning point for EU integration in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The EU has responded to the war in Ukraine by updating its strategic security document and strengthening its defense capabilities through an innovative use of the European Peace Facility, a new security mission in Ukraine and a new industrial policy. The EU has also imposed sanctions on Russia and Belarus and accepted Ukrainian refugees under temporary protection. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has exposed the EU’s weaknesses, such as overall low military capabilities, limited financial capacity and overly complex decision-making procedures still based on unanimity. As Fabbrini pointed out, the war in Ukraine has shown once again that US military deterrence is the only real guarantee of security in Europe, which is why Finland and Sweden have called for NATO membership. For these reasons, the EU must be more ambitious and cannot continue to take revolutionary decisions only when it is on the brink. The EU must develop and consider constitutional adjustments as well as a quantum leap in the CFSP as the only possible prospects for a stronger EU governance able to play a key role on the international scene.
After a productive Q&A session, Prof. Fabbrini concluded the event with a provocative question to Ms. Mogherini: “What would you do to make the position of HR/VP stronger in the future?” She replied calling the High Representative “the perfect job” dur to the provisions of the Lisbon treaty which gives you “four hats at once” (Commission Vice-President, Foreign Affairs Council President, Head of the European External Action Service and of the European Defense Agency). “I would not change a word of the Lisbon treaty”, she affirmed. “I would maybe duplicate the same model for other Vice-Presidents of the Commission in terms of chairing the Council.”
The views expressed in this report are the position of the author and not necessarily those of the Brexit Institute blog.