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What can the EU do and how will the conflict change European defence cooperation?

In the words of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen the “stability of Europe is at stake”. But what can the EU do in this crisis? The EU’s economic weight makes its wide-ranging sanctions package adopted in the last days and targeting, among others, the financial and energy sectors, a crucial starting point. Whilst unlikely to have impact for a few days, they will render war extremely costly for Russia at least in the medium-term.

Removing Russia from the Swift international payment system, as demanded by the UK or the Czech Republic, could maximise the impact of sanctions, but this option is currently being blocked by Germany, Italy, and Hungary on the EU level.

In the short-term, the EU’s most important tools are providing humanitarian assistance to people in the Ukraine, equipping countries at the EU’s Eastern border with additional capabilities for accommodating Ukrainians fleeing the war, and addressing domestic challenges, like potential Russian disinformation, in a coordinated way. Furthermore, continued coordination with NATO, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), and the G7 is crucial to ensure cohesion of the measures taken.

Looking ahead, the war in Ukraine underlines the need for Europeans to be able to join forces and respond to threats to European security. Since the early days of the crisis, both France and the UK have played a key role both in promoting a diplomatic solution and, in reaction to the Russian invasion, made firm statements. Germany, which mostly stood out through its unclear position due to energy interests for several weeks, has most recently stepped up its diplomatic efforts significantly. In the short and medium-term, E3 (France, UK, Germany) cooperation could emerge as a crucial format for coordinating a European position beyond the EU, and make sure that the UK is part of a coherent European answer to the crisis.

Thinking beyond the next weeks, the watershed moment created by the war in Ukraine also implies that Europeans need to think more strategically on how they aim to address war in Europe. This includes reflections on the EU’s and NATO’s respective roles in European defence, the capabilities EU member states are willing to dedicate to this, and ultimately the use of force in Europe. The EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept, supposed to be adopted in March and late June respectively, will need to provide clarity on these questions.


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Gesine Weber

Gesine Weber

PhD Student

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