‘Tectonic shift’: How the Ukraine crisis has changed the EU

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rather than "humiliating" the EU as one British newspaper suggested, has brought member states together and forced them to act decisively and cooperate in new ways, writes Claudia Delpero.

'Tectonic shift': How the Ukraine crisis has changed the EU
France's President Emmanuel Macron and EU leaders pose for a family photograph at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, on March 10, 2022, ahead of the EU leaders summit. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

“Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises,” said Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union. 

That prediction has proven true time and again since the first six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) decided, in the aftermath of World War II, to pool together to make new conflicts among them impossible.

Other countries later joined the bloc, usually after economic or political shocks. The United Kingdom applied for membership (and was initially rejected twice) after the Suez crisis and the dismantling of the empire. Greece and Spain saw the EU accession, in the 1980s, as a way to complete the path to democracy after painful years of dictatorship. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War paved the way for the access of Central and Eastern European states, which were previously part of the Soviet bloc. 

Another bloody war, which ended with the break up of former Yugoslavia, led Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to become candidate countries. Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to apply too. 

As the EU expanded, its unity has been tested. The financial crisis of 2008 opened a rift between wealthier and poorer economies with Greece facing bankruptcy and almost falling out of the Eurozone. But at the price of harsh austerity measures, a precarious solidarity prevailed and the euro, the EU’s flagship monetary project, was saved.

It took the UK decision to leave the bloc, in 2016, to find common purpose again. In the negotiation with a departing member, EU countries saw the need to protect their common interests and recognised the cost of going alone.

A gigantic leap was then made at the outbreak of the pandemic. Facing a dramatic economic crisis, the leaders of the EU and the 27 member states spent four days and nights together to design a recovery plan worth 750 billion euros, the largest stimulus package ever conceived in Europe. 

EU leaders attached the package to environmental and digital objectives to not only boost, but radically transform the economy. They also agree to partly finance the plan with common debt, another first and a further commitment to a united Europe.

Now the war in Ukraine is an “immense trauma… a human, political and humanitarian drama”, but also, “an element that will lead to completely redefine the architecture of Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron before the informal EU summit this week in Versailles.

EU leaders have cautiously opened the door to Ukraine’s EU accession. “We will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family,” they said in a declaration. But they did not commit to make this easier or faster than previous enlargements.

In the past two weeks, however, the EU has already changed dramatically in at least three other ways. 

The first is related to the decision to boost defence cooperation. EU leaders in Versailles agreed to “increase substantially defence expenditures… and with defence capabilities developed in a collaborative way within the European Union”.

Started as a peace project, the bloc is now actively reinforcing its military capacity and, at the end of February, made the unprecedented decision to use €500 million from the EU budget to fund the purchase and delivery and weapons for Ukraine, an amount later doubled in Versailles.

Germany also changed its historical stance, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the country would send weapons to support Ukraine’s defence against Russia and significantly increase its military spending. 

The EU Treaty contains a clause that obliges EU states to help “by all the means in their power” an EU country that suffers an armed aggression. So Germany’s shift was perhaps inevitable after the UK, the biggest military power in Europe with France, decided to leave the bloc. 

Second, the way EU countries have welcomed people fleeing Ukraine marks a U-turn in the refugee policy. More than 2 million people have sought sanctuary in the EU in the past two weeks and, for a first time again, EU countries unanimously agreed to use a ‘temporary protection’ mechanism introduced in 2001 in the aftermath of the war in former Yugoslavia. 

Ukrainian citizens can already travel to the EU visa-free. The emergency mechanism, however, grants them residence and working rights with reduced formalities and without the need to apply for asylum. 

The EU has been accused of double standards for not having been able to make similar decisions for previous conflicts, such as Syria’s, but now that the system has been activated, it will be harder to backtrack in the future. 

Third, the EU adopted a raft of massive sanctions against Russia, from the termination of technology transfer to limits to the import and export of some goods and sanctions against individuals with links to the Putin’s regime. It remains, however, dependent on Russia’s energy. Oil, coal and gas make up 62 percent of Russia’s exports to the bloc, according to the EU statistical office Eurostat.

Now the EU has agreed to reduce imports of Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of the year and is discussing a complete phase out of Russian fossil fuels by 2027.

In the short term, the EU aims to find alternative sources of gas. But in the longer term, the plan is to reduce demand through energy efficiency, including a massive building renovation programme, and a boost to renewable energy, accelerating plans to make the European economy carbon neutral by 2050. 

If the EU manages to become more independent, greener and more humane, it may be true that the Ukraine conflict will represent, as EU leaders said, a “tectonic shift in European history”. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

Member comments

  1. Yes, it will be a huge ‘tectonic shift’ in europeans wallets, that’s for sure because all these political decisions will not affect the ones who made the decisions, it will affect the people so enjoy your ‘leaders’ decisions. In fact, our dependency on russian energy sources was made years ago by EU bureaucrats/politicians and the decision of phasing out this dependency of russian fuels will lead to what? To an increase of USA/Qatar lng gas dependecy and change who we are dependant and increase even more the energy costs as they’re around 40% more expensive than russian gas? Perfect, are you enjoying the inflation rate? Don’t worry, support these decisions as you’ll enjoy even more the economic crash that is comming

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Germany will see further food price hikes, says minister

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir believes German customers haven't seen the last of the price hikes in supermarkets and is calling for new relief measures to support the poor.

Germany will see further food price hikes, says minister

Speaking to Tagesschau on Friday, Özdemir said he believed that food prices hadn’t yet peaked in the wake of the Ukraine war and escalating energy crisis.

While inflation in Germany is currently at a record 7.9 percent, the cost of food products is going up at a much faster rate than many other consumer goods. In May, the price of food was on average 11.1 percent higher than it was in May last year. 

As the cost of living becomes increasingly unmanageable for low-income households, Özdemir is calling for VAT on basic food items to be temporarily abolished. 

“I think that would be good,” he told Tagesschau, adding that he thought the measure would also contribute to healthy eating.

READ ALSO: German Agriculture Minister wants to scrap VAT on fresh food

The debate on cutting or abolishing VAT on food has been gaining ground in recent weeks, with an increasing number of organisations coming out in support of the move. 

The German Social Welfare Association (VdK), the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) and the German Diabetes Association have argued that VAT on general food items should be slashed or abolished during the crisis.

But the Green Party politician was sceptical about the chances of success, telling Tagesspiegel that he doubted he could find a majority in the coalition government in favour of the move. 

Financial aid for farmers 

One of the reasons for the disproportion hikes in food prices is the increasing cost burdens faced by farmers for things like energy and fertilisers. 

To attempt to counteract this, the Bundestag has laid the groundwork for an €180 million aid package for agriculture business.

By the end of September, farmers and other agriculture businesses will each be able to claim €15,000 in state aid. One third of the money will be provided by the EU, the rest by the federal government

READ ALSO: Germans turn to food banks as cost of living crisis hits

The other major issue is the supply of grain from the Ukraine. 

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began back in February, it has been impossible for ships to safely transport grain from the Black Sea ports to Europe and the rest of the world. This has had an impact on the price of products like pasta, bread and flour. 

The question of how one of the world’s largest grain exporters can continue to trade is a major theme of the Global Food Security conference, which is taking place in Berlin on Friday. 

Özdemir said that “lasting and efficient alternatives” were needed to ensure that grain exports could continue.  

German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Mykola
Solskyj, in Kyiv. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/BMEL/Photothek | Leon Kügeler

As long as Russia acts as a “permanent aggressor”, “Ukraine cannot rely on being able to transport its grain safely across the Black Sea, even in the event of peace”, the minister warned.

He suggested that a broad-gauge railway between the Ukraine and the Baltic Ports or trade routes along the Danube could be viable options.

For EU countries, Özdemir also suggested that rules around crop rotation could be waived this year, which would enable countries to repeatedly cultivate wheat.

According to calculations, this would allow “up to 3.4 million tonnes of additional wheat to be produced in Germany alone”, Özdemir said.

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s rising cost of living slow down?