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.