Ukraine and the need to overcome European illusions

Ukrainian and EU flags in the front of the Presidential Palace Republic of Ukraine. Photo Ruslanas Iržikevičius

There are persistent untruths, such as the one according to which a revision of the Treaties would suddenly become indispensable with the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union to include Ukraine, Moldova and the Balkan countries.

This is to overlook the fact that the EU was unable to foresee, let alone prevent, the massive invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on 24 February last year. With the exception of the United Kingdom, which has since departed, this is the same Union that acknowledged – if not formally[i], at least de facto – the annexation of Crimea and the latent incorporation of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk by the Russian Federation. It is the same union which, impervious to reality, was still dreaming of strategic independence a few months ago.[ii]

In such a context, the invocation of future enlargements to justify a revision of the Treaties is dangerous in that it risks masking the shortcomings, failings and serious political mistakes of the Union and its current Member States that have combined to make the Ukrainian tragedy possible.

It is therefore necessary to throw the spotlight on the Union’s past mistakes, its shortcomings and failings in the field of foreign, security and defence policy, while also drawing up some lines of inquiry for reforms that the Union and its Member States could undertake.

Some have already ventured to do so, citing the urgent need to change the way decisions are made and, in particular, the abolition of unanimity voting in favour of majority voting for matters relating to foreign affairs, security and defence policy. Proponents of this position include Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and, more recently, former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This proposal, one of the few that goes beyond mere incantation or display, must be questioned both in terms of its acceptability and its effectiveness.

It is doubtful that certain countries – and we are not thinking of Hungary here – are prepared to give up their veto altogether. Certain ideas and proposals currently circulating in France, such as the creation of a National Security Council, the takeover of the Dassault aviation group by a national champion of crony capitalism, the continuation of the project to build a new national aircraft carrier[iii], not to mention the delaying tactics last spring with regard to Ukraine’s accession to the Union and the long reluctance to supply arms to Kyiv, are anything but an indication of any desire to prepare the Union for the development of a truly European strategic autonomy. In Berlin, ambiguity reigns. On the one hand, Chancellor Scholz seems to side with those in favour of abolishing unanimous voting[iv], while on the other hand he is creating a 100 billion euro fund to modernise the German army in order to make it “the cornerstone of conventional defence in Europe – the best equipped armed forces.”[v] Unsurprisingly, the latter proposal did not arouse any particular enthusiasm in other EU capitals, before being largely scaled back.

The future of Europe

While the European Union was already engaged throughout the “Conference on the Future of Europe”[vi] in a process of reflection on possible improvements to its functioning and the strengthening of its objectives, the latest invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation has already changed the content of this process. Without losing sight of the fact that the utmost political priority of the Union and its Member States must remain that of providing Ukraine with all the political, military and economic support necessary to repel the invader as quickly as possible and regain full control of its territory, it would also seem urgent to integrate a number of lessons from the war in Ukraine into that reflection on the future of the Union.

With a few exceptions (Poland and the Baltic States), neither the Union itself nor its Member States were able to anticipate the Russian aggression, even in the months and weeks leading up to it, despite US President Biden taking the possibility of such aggression very seriously and constantly warning Vladimir Putin of the disastrous consequences for Russia.

Moreover, the Member States and the EU never thought of an ex post forum, i.e. to formulate a strategic response after the invasion was launched. NATO – under the strong leadership of the United States, with the support of the United Kingdom, Poland and the Baltic States initially, and then of the other Central European countries along with Mario Draghi’s Italy – was where the strategy to support the Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression was developed and implemented. The European Union, torn between resolute support and “dialogue”, which couldn’t help but recall the Munich Agreement, was merely one of the places where the work of NATO was translated, often with delay and parsimony.

A full understanding of the reasons behind these two serious failures – of anticipation and reaction – seems to us a sine qua non for any reform of how the Union’s foreign and security policy functions.

One of the reasons, we believe, lies in the progressive depoliticisation of foreign policy.

This process, which has been underway for decades, is the result of several factors,


1. The executive branch’s gradual stranglehold (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the Member State) over the sovereign areas of foreign and defence policy.

2. The media’s disaffection with parliamentary procedures in general, and open debate in particular. The most visible manifestation of this is the rejection of parliamentary columns in favour of the “small talk” of a circle of personalities, of no particular legitimacy, thus depriving the public of articulated visions and opposing arguments.

3. The political process of European integration in general, and the specific modalities of integration in foreign, security and defence policy in particular.

It is this last, seemingly paradoxical point that is of particular interest to us here, and which requires a little backtracking. The creation of the European Council proposed by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, motivated in turn by an idea formulated by Jean Monnet in 1970, responded to the need to involve the heads of state and government directly in a European construction that was becoming less and less “technical” and more and more political.

However, this came at the price of a gradual dispossession of the prerogatives of the Council (of foreign ministers), due to the competition generated by the irruption of this new institution representing the Member State governments, which was essentially more powerful and more prestigious, into the European institutional context. The European Council was intended and designed as a collegial photocopy of the French monarcho-republican presidential institution. As in Paris, where everything is overseen from the top of the pyramid, the European Council has swallowed up the Council of Ministers, steered the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and ensured that the European Parliament has no real power in the areas of foreign, security and defence policy, which are of primary interest to us here.

The Council has gradually become a kind of old boys club where foreign ministers discuss world affairs, sweeping any problematic issues under the carpet and ratifying decisions taken elsewhere — at the European Council when it is usually late, even too late, and where the time allotted for debate is kept to a minimum (about fifteen hours every three months). The real power in this area is, for the most part, in the hands of non-political bodies: the senior administration of the Member States’ foreign ministries, the diplomats of COREPER[vii] and the sherpas of the Member States’ presidents and prime ministers, most of whom are also diplomats. It goes without saying that they are more invested in the defence of their specific institution, their own country and government, and even their own career plans, than the interests of the Union as a whole.

For a European Senate

It is not the work of Member State ambassadors that is at issue here, nor, despite the wishes of High Representative Josep Borrell, that of the ambassadors of the Union[viii]. What is at issue is the blurring, or even the disappearance in many member countries, of places for open debate and dialectical elaboration in the field of foreign policy, and the absence of such an institutional locus at the Union level[ix]. What is at issue is, to paraphrase Georges Clémenceau, the realisation that peace is too serious a matter to be left to diplomats.

On the basis of this observation, it should be clear that any real progress in the field of the Union’s foreign and security policy implies a return to the spirit and the letter of the institutional architecture envisioned by the founding fathers. This is founded on the representation of the citizens (the European Parliament) and the Member State governments (the Council[x]). If there has been any drift, it is not, as has often been asserted, an inter-governmental drift but an inter-national bureaucratic drift. Making the Council a full-time institution seems to us essential for allowing a return to politics (and of politics) and to the fundamentals of democracy: the separation of powers and the organisation of checks and balances.

The transformation of the Council into a genuine Senate of the Union[xi], a place for the elaboration, oversight and control of the first segments of the common foreign policy seems to us the key reform to be carried out in this area. It would also have the advantage of not requiring any major changes to the Treaty.[xii] The Senate would meet several times a month in plenary session, with an agenda, presentation and voting on reports and resolutions. The Member State foreign ministers would spend most of their time in Brussels, delegating to one or more deputies the day-to-day management of their ministry.

Unlike many policies that have already been largely communitarised, foreign and security policy still largely escapes Community procedures. It is therefore necessary to take into account the sensitivities, obstacles and resistances at the root of this situation by conceiving a gradual process of “communitarisation”. Only a division of powers between the European Union and the Member States based on a differentiation of relations with third countries seems feasible to us.

Three levels would be established:

1. Communitarised area. For third countries integrated in this zone, foreign policy would be managed by the Commission and defined jointly by the Council (of Foreign Ministers) and the European Parliament (the Foreign Affairs Committee in particular). Diplomatic relations would be the sole responsibility of the Union. Member States’ embassies would be abolished. Authorisations for any arms sales would be subject to a vote of the Council and the European Parliament upon proposal from the Commission.

2. Shared management area. For these countries, a general policy would be proposed by the Commission and submitted to the Council (of Ministers) and Parliament for approval. Member States would be responsible for its implementation, with the Commission playing a coordinating role.

3. Cooperation area. For these third countries, the Member States would endeavour to coordinate their respective policies at European level and would commit to ensuring that their policies are not be detrimental to any Member State or to the Union as a whole.

This arrangement would operate according to a “ratchet” mechanism: a third country classified in category 1 cannot move back into category 2 or 3, and a country classified in category 2 cannot move back into category 3.

For example, category 1 could include countries such as North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Afghanistan and a number of states in the Pacific area where no EU Member State has diplomatic representation. Category 2 could include countries in the EU’s “near abroad” such as Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Mali, Chad and Lebanon.

For a common European army

A common foreign and security policy, even if limited and evolving, would be incomplete without its own military instrument, which could, as a last resort, defend its positions. In this area too, the political effectiveness of the common instrument lies above all in its strict independence from Member States. In other words, the common European army could not be dependent on the good (or bad) will of a given Member State, refusing to accept or only accepting under certain conditions its national contingent participating in a given intervention deemed necessary by a majority of Member States. The common army should be an instrument of the Union as such and of it alone. As such, it should be made up of European officers and soldiers, answering directly and solely to the political authorities of the Union. Given that this is, in the words of the former Secretary General of the Council, Ambassador Pierre de Boissieu, a matter of life and death, decisions to deploy the common European army would be taken by the Commission and submitted for the approval of the European Council sitting as the European Security Council.

Without the European Senate and the European Parliament as bodies responsible for elaboration, tracking and monitoring, without the political authority responsible for implementing this policy – the European Commission – without the operational instrument of last resort that a common European army worthy of the name[xiii] should represent, and without the introduction of a gradual mechanism for the pooling of foreign and security policy by the Member States, the transition to qualified majority voting seems to us, as it stands, unlikely to constitute a practicable proposal, even if it were supported by a substantial number of Member States.

The proposal envisaged here is confined to foreign and security policy, to the exclusion of defence policy which, without prejudice to existing cooperation in the PESCO format or other possible future cooperation, would remain the responsibility of the Member States and, for most of them, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The illusion of the Union’s strategic independence and the need for the EU’s strategic autonomy

The latest Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated to those EU Member States who – out of intellectual laziness or because they saw themselves as the main beneficiaries – cultivated the illusion of the EU’s strategic independence, that this option was and remains both militarily and politically impracticable today. This comes as a relief to the Central and Eastern European countries, which had a clear perception of this and despaired of being able to share it with the Member States of old Europe.

The plans and ambitions in the field of European defence, as well as the diagnosis made by some of “brain-dead” NATO, were not only vague but – and this is important for the subject at hand – based on a profoundly anti-European approach, in that the objective pursued was none other than that of creating the conditions for one or two EU states to take the place of the American leadership within a European pillar of NATO. It was also a way of establishing and perpetuating the German-French condominium of connivance that has de facto governed the European Union for almost two decades.

Although the hypothesis envisaged here may seem modest, the objective is nonetheless to allow the emergence of a certain strategic autonomy for the Union by cutting the Gordian knot implicating its political and institutional base – a procedure required to escape the deadlock in intergovernmental cooperation that rules the Union’s foreign and security policy today. This is necessitated not so much by the situation on the eastern flank of the Union, which is the focus of NATO, but by its southern flank.

First and foremost, there is the need to confront with a unified voice the Turkish[xiv] and Kurdish problems which, for obvious reasons, are currently being kept under wraps.

Finally, unless we resign ourselves to a more or less symbolic and dispersed contribution by each Member State, a common foreign and security policy and the creation of a common European army are the sine qua non of the Union’s ability to make a real contribution to the defence of democracy and the preservation of peace around the world, particularly in the Pacific region, where only the Union – alongside the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia – could make a contribution worthy of the name, to the defence of democracy and freedom, including freedom of movement.

Treaty reform, enhanced cooperation or a new Schengen?

In theory, there are three ways for the EU Member States to approach the (gradual) implementation of a common foreign and security policy. The first is the revision of the Treaty. A shift to majority voting would amount sic et simpliciter to an abolition of all the Treaty rules that differentiate the Union’s foreign, security and defence policy from its other policies. A revision of this magnitude would therefore require a profound reform of the Treaty and the agreement of the 27 Member States. This is an improbable goal, due to the likely opposition of this or that Member State, not least that of Hungary, which could mask other, less “official” but probably even more intractable, objections.

Enhanced cooperation[xv] would involve relatively minor changes to the Treaty, which could be made through the simplified Treaty revision procedure. This would mainly involve allowing the use of the institute of enhanced cooperation in the field of foreign and security policy. Moreover, as enhanced cooperation would only be binding for those states that wished to join, it would be less likely to generate intransigent opposition – all the more so if the European Council acting as the European Security Council were open to the participation (without voting rights) of EU Member States not party to enhanced cooperation.

A Foreign and Security Policy Schengen is theoretically possible but undoubtedly more complex and burdened by its non-treaty nature.

Without Ukrainian resistance and American leadership defining a line of support for the Ukrainians, the war unleashed by Russia would have clearly been fatal for the survival of a number of European states – including of course Ukraine – and for the security of all European states, but also for the future of the European project in general.

The Franco-German engine has been busted for more than 20 years – since France refused to accept the proposals of Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, for a European Federation.[xvi] Its successor, the German-French condominium of connivance, bears a crushing responsibility for the situation that Ukraine and Europe are experiencing today, though this does not excuse the conformity of many Old European Member States.

To avoid the risk of the Union falling back into the ruts traced by the German-French condominium of connivance, a real advance in foreign and security policy seems fundamental. Cleaning out the Augian stables is essential. The Russian fifth column is still present in Germany, but also in other countries of Old Europe, such as France, Italy and Belgium. Strict rules must be established to govern the economic and commercial relations of EU Member States with a country which, after its defeat in Ukraine, will probably remain under the rule of the present regime for some time. From this perspective, it would be useful to create a Directorate General within the European Commission to monitor Member State compliance with the ban on all exports of arms and dual-use technologies to authoritarian states (Russia, China and Iran in particular).[xvii]

This foreign and security policy in the broadest sense should also include the issue of energy in order to dodge any new deadly dependencies such as those generated by Nord Stream 2, and also to protect against double dependencies (purchase of hydrocarbons and sale of arms) on the Gulf States.

Burying a decision by creating an institution

However, in order to free the Union from the deleterious grip of the German-French condominium of connivance, other containment measures for the large states of the Union would be appropriate. The adhesion of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and the Balkan states could be one element, provided of course that the creation of the European Political Community[xviii] does not just become a delaying tactic – a way, to paraphrase Georges Clémenceau once again, to bury a decision by creating an institution – but remains what it seems to have been in the minds of many heads of state and government at the European Council of June 2022: a consolation prize given to France in exchange for its support for granting Ukraine the status of candidate country.

In the 27-member EU, Germany and France together hold almost a blocking minority: 152 votes out of 449. The blocking minority is 158 votes (35 percent of the Member State population) and 13 Member States (45 percent).[xix] In a Union of 32, the 27 plus Ukraine (44), Moldova (3), North Macedonia (3), Albania (3) and Montenegro (1), the blocking minority would be 176 votes (from a total of 503) and 15 Member States (45 percent). This would constitute the first loosening of the German-French stranglehold. In a Union of 36 (total votes amounting to 516) – the 32 plus Georgia (4), Armenia (3), Bosnia (4) and Kosovo (2) – the blocking minority would be 181 votes and 17 Member States (45 percent).

But it would undoubtedly be opportune to go further and question the validity of the golden share granted to the large states by setting the threshold of the qualified majority at 65 percent in terms of population and just 55 percent in terms of the number of Member States. If, hypothetically, the qualified majority were set at 60 percent of the population and 60 percent of Member States, in a Union of 27 (total 449 votes) the blocking minority would be 180 votes and 11 Member States (40 percent). In a Union of 32, it would be 201 (total 503) votes and 13 Member States, and in a Union of 36 (total 516), it would be 207 votes and 15 Member States, thereby loosening the grip of the German-French condominium of connivance on the EU.

The latter is not in the best of shape. Following a state visit conveniently organised by the United States, the French President may have finally laid aside his dialogical approach with the Kremlin and provided more serious military support to Ukraine.

Chancellor Scholz, with the determination that we know him for, may have eventually given the green light to the shipment of a costly Patriot system, armoured infantry vehicles and main battle tanks. The initial “wait-and-see” attitude of Germany and France, however, will still leave deep scars in many other EU capitals and weaken the ability of Berlin and Paris to perpetuate the EU’s management of deals that benefit one or the other. Meanwhile, thanks to their common political and military view of Ukraine, the frontline states of the Union are now aware of their collective strength. Numbering 13 in the Union of 27, they constitute a blocking minority. Focused as they are on “managing the urgent geopolitical challenges facing Europe”, for the time being they still sit on the defensive when it comes to the future of the Union.[xx]

New threats in the south-east

While there is no doubt that the priority of the 27 must remain that of political and military support for Ukraine, it nevertheless seems urgent to begin a reflection on the strategic future of the Union and, to some extent, of NATO. The ongoing war in Ukraine has already produced considerable geopolitical effects. The necessary defeat of Russia will produce effects internal to Russia, which will primarily concern the Russians themselves and their ability to definitively neutralise the FSB and other siloviki, as well as other external effects which will concern us more directly. These major geopolitical effects will not primarily concern the frontline countries, which are already strengthened by the forthcoming accession of Sweden and Finland, and which a positive outcome to the conflict would subsequently reinforce. The epicentre of the security threat will shift to the south-east, to the perimeter of the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, where four countries, Georgia, Greece, Cyprus and, above all, Armenia will come under increasing pressure from the two arms of resurgent Panturkism: Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Unless we resign ourselves to subalternity, thinking about the construction of a (certain) strategic autonomy for the Union also implies that Europeans extricate themselves from national-individualist or Euro-centric approaches, and conceive of themselves as a global actor capable of making a political and military contribution that is not merely symbolic or incantatory.

In this sense, only a European security policy based on a common European army can allow the Union to contribute to the defence of states governed by rule of law that are threatened by imperialist and autocratic regimes. In particular, the serious threats to Taiwan should lead the EU and the West to question, in the light of the breakdown of agreements on Hong Kong’s autonomy and, consequently, the crass deception of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, on the desirability of rapid diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or, failing that, the announcement by the members of the Ramstein coalition that in the event of an invasion of the island by the People’s Republic they would automatically proceed to diplomatic recognition of Taipei. In the same spirit, the NATO member countries could start thinking about transforming the Atlantic Organisation into a common defence organisation for the countries of North America, Europe and the Pacific zone: Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, as well as the French regions of the Pacific (Polynesia and New Caledonia, which are indefensible in their present state).

In Europe, Armenia is undoubtedly the most threatened country, and could be even more so if Russia, defeated in Ukraine, were forced for internal reasons to urgently recall its forces stationed in Armenia as well as its interposition force in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, NATO member countries could begin to reflect on the merits of Turkey’s continued membership in NATO and on the possibility of Georgia and Armenia simultaneously joining the Atlantic Organisation.

The shockwaves from the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine are likely to continue to reverberate for a long time across Europe and beyond, even if the Ukrainians are able to quickly regain control of their entire territory.

If, like NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, we believe that we must “be prepared for a long war”, that we must “not underestimate Russia”[xxi], the Union would no doubt be well advised not to postpone the question of the policies and instruments that would enable it to support the Ukrainians more effectively and to provide concrete responses to new security threats.

(Translation: Ciaran Lawless | Voxeurop)

[i] “Come on, let’s stop joking around, Crimea is part of Russia. That’s just how it is.” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, France 24, 4 March 2014

[ii] « Macron et la confédération européenne », Le Grand Continent, May 2022,

[iii] « Défense. Objectif 2028 pour la construction du futur porte-avions », Thierry Hameau, Ouest-France, 2 May 2022

[iv] « Le Chancelier allemand Scholz défend un vote à la majorité, et plus à l’unanimité, pour la fiscalité et la diplomatie européenne », Le Monde, 29 August 2022

[v] « Discours de Prague : comprendre le tournant de Scholz sur l’Union », Le Grand Continent, August 2022


[vii] Committee of Permanent Representatives

[viii] “Quand la diplomatie européenne se fait remonter les bretelles”, Jean Quatremer, Libération, 12 October 2022

[ix] The European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs is not, to date, a real alternative because of the limitations imposed by the Treaty.

[x] Art. 16 § 2. “The Council shall consist of a representative of each Member State at ministerial level, who may commit the government of the Member State in question and cast its vote.”

[xi] A full-fledged European Senate could include, in addition to the 27 Ministers of Foreign Affairs, 27 Ministers responsible for Economy and Finance; Justice and Home Affairs; Environment, Agriculture, Energy and Transport; Social Affairs and Health; as well as 27 Ministers without Portfolio for all other matters in their European dimension.

[xii] Art. 236 of The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

[xiii] Three rapid intervention divisions, three air and sea groups, 100,000 soldiers, an annual budget of 30 billion euros.

[xiv] In the event of a common army, the establishment of a naval air base in Volos (Greece) would undoubtedly constitute an effective response to President Erdoğan’s repeated provocations towards Greece.

[xv] Common European Army: proposal for Enhanced Cooperation

[xvi] “From Confederacy to Federation – Thoughts on the finality of European integration”, Joschka Fischer, Humboldt University, Berlin, 12 May 2000.

[xvii] In view of recent mistakes, including the violation of the EU embargo on arms exports to Russia, it would be appropriate for this EU body to be coupled with a similar body within NATO.

[xviii] Very similar to the proposal made shortly before by Enrico Letta, President of the Italian Democratic Party

[xix] The calculation is based on granting each Member State one vote per million inhabitants, rounding up. The system used during votes by the Council is slightly different, in that it accounts for the exact population of each Member State. Weighting of votes in the Council:

[xx] Non-paper by Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Sweden on the outcome of and follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe

[xxi] Putin planning for a long war in Ukraine: NATO chief, RFI, 16 December 2022

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