The dramatic events unfolding on Europe’s doorstep seem an affront to the European Union’s core political values: self-determination, rule of law, and peaceful conflict resolution. Yet even as the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated, Europe has largely remained a passive observer. EU representatives’ initial efforts to help stabilize the situation after the ouster of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych petered out with Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula. And the emergency session of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on March 3 resulted only in a bland statement condemning Russia’s actions that merely hinted at potential serious repercussions. European heads of state are likely to meet later in the week to discuss further options, but few are predicting that the European Union will play a large role in the conflict. The Wall Street Journal aptly summarized consensus opinion with its headline “A Shaken EU Makes No Real Effort to Confront Russia Over Ukraine.”

It was supposed to be different. The drama of the eurozone crisis aside, the past decade has seen a slow, steady evolution of the European Union as a global actor. It managed the successful absorption of 11 Central and East European states into its democratic free-market system. And with the Lisbon treaty, which came into force in 2009, the union finally had an answer to former U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s apocryphal question: “When I want to call Europe, who do I call?” One should call Catherine Ashton, of course. She is currently the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and despite widespread initial skepticism, her efforts to craft a Bosnia-Kosovo peace settlement and her leadership in recent negotiations with Iran have brought accolades. Also helping matters are the new European External Action Service, which serves as a dedicated EU diplomatic corps, and a strengthened European Security and Defense Policy. 

All this makes the European Union’s seeming timidity when it comes to Ukraine all the more perplexing. It also begs the question of whether we should expect the European Union to sit on the sidelines in future crises. It was, of course, the attractions of further integration with the European Union that sparked the Euromaiden movement in Ukraine to begin with. So if not in Ukraine, where? 

In fact, the Ukrainian situation cuts to the heart of both the European Union's promise -- and challenges -- as a foreign policy actor. The European Union still has a powerful pull for many countries, such as Ukraine, aspiring to join its ranks. It acts in concert on a variety of external policies, signing international treaties alongside sovereign states and acting as the world’s largest contributor of foreign development aid. Its combined economic weight outstrips that of the United States and puts it far ahead of China. Perhaps it is unsurprising therefore that the European Union’s successes have prompted some observers to forget that it is not a nation-state, and to compare it unfavorably to the United States in terms of foreign policy coherence. In reality, the European Union is sorely limited in its ability to respond in real time to crises. And for the foreseeable future, it will have to continue to navigate the political agendas and identities of its member states.

For now, the European Union reconciles these tensions through a very distinctive foreign policy -- one that rests on two elements. The first is an emphasis on “human security,” rather than traditional geopolitics. Cataloged in the so-called Petersberg tasks, the European Union limits itself to strictly humanitarian missions. Its centerpiece European Neighborhood Policy calls for the stabilization of areas surrounding Europe through economic agreements and political encouragement -- namely, institutional support, election observers, and various types of association agreements such as the one at the center of the Ukrainian crisis. More broadly, for the European Union, “human security” means a range of vigorous efforts at slowing climate change, managing financial crises and the pressures of economic globalization, human rights, and cybersecurity. In the European Union’s world, things such as balance of power and armed intervention are simply not on the table, although individual member states such as France continue to undertake military interventions on their own. 

The second key element of the European Union’s foreign policy is an insistence on nesting its own actions within those of political institutions above it (such as NATO and the United Nations) and those below it (such as the member states). From its intervention in Libya, conducted under NATO auspices, to the European Union’s extensive involvement in peacekeeping activities within the United Nations, to Ashton’s leadership on the P5+1 talks with Iran over its nuclear program, multilateral solutions have been the name of Europe’s geopolitical game. And in terms of nesting downward, the European Union has repeatedly avoided creating a “European army” -- which is politically untenable -- but instead built networks of member states’ militaries. So the European Union’s 2,200-strong Nordic Battlegroup is made up of Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden. Its Eindhoven-based European Air Transport Command, which controls aerial refueling and military transport, is run jointly by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The European Union’s drive to nest policies upward and downward helps legitimize its foreign policy activities while also leaving military capacity in member states’ hands.

But the European Union’s post-national foreign policy is clearly more efficacious in some areas than in others. And the crisis in Ukraine lays that bare. European talk of democratization and economic development created incentives for change in Ukraine. And as long as support remained in the realm of ideas and institutions, Europe fared pretty well. Ashton was the first senior foreign official to visit Kiev after Yanukovych was ousted. "So we are here to say we want to support and help the country to stay strong and to go forward in the way it chooses to," she said to remarks to reporters in Ukraine. In doing so, she signaled to Moscow the importance of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

But now that the situation has moved into the zone of military actions, the European Union’s hands are tied. Before he invaded Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin cleverly played up divisions among EU member states (these mostly arise from their varying dependence on Russian energy and trade). Putin’s nationalist desire for Russia to become a “resurrected great power” clashes with the very basis of EU foreign policy, delineated in the European Security Strategy document titled “A Secure Europe in a Better World.” Putin seems not to have gotten a copy of the ESS, which states that “the development of a stronger international society, well functioning international institutions and a rule-based international order is our objective.” Yet efforts to show a united European front against Russia’s breach of territorial sovereignty quickly ran into problems; on March 2, Poland and Lithuania invoked the NATO clause that calls for consultation when one of its members feels that its security is threatened. Meanwhile, Germany, the biggest importer of Russian gas, and France have both cautioned against escalation. EU leaders are discussing economic sanctions against Russia, but Germans will surely view any punishment as exacting a higher price on their own nation, since their export economy depends in part on good relations with Russia. The divide between most major European players and the United Kingdom, which is historically most aligned with the United States and is pushing for action, is also coming to the fore.

The demonstration of the hard limits of the European Union's particular brand of foreign policy must be painful for Europe, given that the tumult in Ukraine is in part an identity crisis over whether Ukraine should be part of Europe or linked to Russia. For now, the European Union must continue to emphasize working through multinational institutions. It is unsurprising, therefore, that one of the first suggestions from German Chancellor Angela Merkel was for the external Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to promote dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. Britain is also interested in the idea, proposed by Merkel, of a contact group to embark on a fact-finding mission to encourage political dialogue.

The European Union continues to be an economic giant, but it is not quite the political ant of old. The union is often derided for its confusing alphabet soup of acronyms and overlapping foreign policy institutions. And it is true that in European foreign and security policy there is little clear hierarchy, the names and institutions change every few years, and everything seems terribly ad hoc. But this is all by design -- the price for keeping member states, which are quite rightly jealous of their sovereign prerogatives, on board. And it may just be the secret to whatever successes the union has achieved to date. The European Union will continue to work with fragile countries that aspire to closer relations, even if full membership is not likely for some time. In Ukraine, the European Union will favor more hidden, bureaucratized action -- financial assistance to Ukraine’s new government, trade and investment ties, and potentially adjusting pipelines of natural gas to allow more to flow to Ukraine from European ports to decrease reliance on Russia. Any efforts out of Brussels will be under the radar, and for that, they will no doubt be derided by observers on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, as well as by some on the British side of the Pas-de-Calais. But it would be a mistake to equate lack of confrontation with lack of influence. In the long run, although the particular brand of EU foreign policy, which emphasizes human security, international law, and member-state prerogatives, might not be able to wrest Crimea forcibly from a determined Putin, it will have a stealthy impact on the evolution of politics in Ukraine and beyond.

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  • KATHLEEN R. MCNAMARA is Associate Professor of Government and Foreign Service and Director of the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University.
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