Europe ponders the future of its policy on Ukraine
This year has been an unexpectedly consequential one for the EU as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but next year could prove to be an even bigger, tougher test for the bloc.
The 27-member club surprised many in recent months with the unity it showed as it worked closely with other Western allies to implement major sanctions against Russia. The latest phase of this is expected to kick in on Dec. 5 in the form of an oil price cap that was agreed with the G7.
In recent days, Europe has also thrown its diplomatic weight behind the 120-day renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered, primarily, between Turkiye, Russia, the UN and Ukraine. The agreement, initially reached in July, created a protected transit corridor for shipping to help alleviate global food shortages by allowing exports to resume from three ports in Ukraine, which is a major producer of grains and oilseeds.
Despite this backdrop of relative success, 2023 could prove to be a very difficult year for Europe if the war in Ukraine continues, and this will be, perhaps, the key topic of discussion at next month’s summit of 27 prime ministers and presidents from EU member states.
On Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell set the stage for this upcoming discussion by stating his view that “Russia is not ready to withdraw (from Ukraine) and as far as it doesn’t withdraw, peace will not be possible. It is Russia who has to make peace possible; the aggressor has to withdraw if he wants a sustainable peace.”
Nine months after the invasion began, Russia’s economy has finally fallen into a recession, according to official data from Moscow released on Wednesday. Its gross domestic product fell by 4 percent in the third quarter of the year compared with a year ago, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency. This followed a 4.1 percent year-on-year decline in its second-quarter GDP.
As long as US support for Ukraine remains intact, which is more likely for the foreseeable future following the results of last week’s midterm elections in America, internal divisions within the EU might be significantly easier to manage.
With no obvious end to the conflict in sight, the EU’s resolve is likely to be tested further in coming weeks, not least because its collective economy is heading into what the European Commission has warned is likely to be a recession, too, with high inflation and rising interest rates.
The economic fallout could yet grow worse. Russian gas supplies to Europe might become more sporadic over the winter and some have speculated that Moscow might also try to impose a time-limited oil embargo on Europe that could cause prices to skyrocket even further.
As long as US support for Ukraine remains intact, which is more likely for the foreseeable future following the results of last week’s midterm elections in America, internal divisions within the EU might be significantly easier to manage. But the significant differences of opinion between members of the bloc that unquestionably exist will affect how far and how fast they, and by extension the EU itself, will go in 2023 in terms of taking further action against Moscow.
This might be felt most keenly in the debate over sanctions. Despite Poland, the Baltics and the Nordic EU states pushing Western Europe for swifter and tougher energy sanctions against Moscow, new measures will be more incremental during the next phase of war in the absence of significant new provocations from Moscow.
Many consider such provocations are unlikely to happen but they cannot be ruled out, such is the volatility of the situation. The scope for it to happen through miscalculation, rather than design, was illustrated by the misdirected missile that landed in Poland in recent days.
Hungary has been the most outspoken outlier so far in voicing concerns about sanctions against Russia. Yet behind the wider European public statements of support for Ukraine there lie significant differences of opinion between major Western European states, such as Germany and France, and the nations on the eastern side of the continent that want an even tougher response.
The schisms within Europe were showcased over the summer in a European Council on Foreign Relations poll that found that while Europeans felt great solidarity with Ukraine and supported sanctions on Russia, they were split in terms of the longer-term goals. They were divided between a “peace” camp (which then stood at 35 percent of those polled and was potentially growing) that wants the war to end quickly by any means necessary, and a “justice” camp (22 percent) that believed the more pressing goal was to punish Russia for its actions.
In all of the bigger EU member states, apart from Poland, the peace camp was larger than the justice camp. The preference for peace was strongest in Italy and Germany, where citizens worry, increasingly, about the cost of sanctions and the threat of military escalation.
There was also a significant group among those polled that declined to choose between peace or justice but still largely supported the EU’s actions in response to war in Ukraine. Members of this swing group shared the anti-Russian feelings of the justice camp but also worried about escalation, like those in the peace camp.
In the coming months, greater numbers of this third group might move more toward the peace or justice camps and their views could prove crucial in determining the scope and pace of Europe’s next steps.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.