What’s the Logic of Ukraine Signing Over Its Sovereignty to the EU?
Beware of emotion-led politics as Kyiv weighs its options for the future.
Ukraine is expected to receive European Union candidate status at the Union’s two-day summit, which has begun today. The decision, as has been widely observed, is a symbolic one, and is likely to come as a boost of morale for Ukraine’s defenders.
Yet one should be weary of the pitfalls of emotion-led politics. For one, the road from candidate status to full European membership is long — just ask Turkey, which has been on a road to the coveted members club for nearly 20 years.
More significantly, there are legitimate questions as to whether the European Union is the appropriate structure for providing Ukraine with what it needs — that is, security — and what it ostensibly wants, namely, sovereignty.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, EU member states have an obligation to assist each other in the case of armed aggression with “all means in their power.” Yet this stipulation — designed with terrorism, natural disasters, and cyberwarfare in mind — does little to deter nuclear powers.
This is largely why Poland, say, entered the North Atlantic Treaty before it joined the EU. This is also why Finland and Sweden, both EU members, now seek protection under NATO’s Article 5. EU membership is no guarantor of security.
Yet for Ukraine, security comes first. This is true in the immediate future, as well as under any conceivable scenario of the war’s end. Should, for instance, Ukraine, succeed in recovering conquered territories and pushing Russia out — even with, say, the exception of Crimea — the risk of Russian retaliation, up to and including the nuclear option, could increase.
In the event of a frozen conflict, this risk could be perennial. Should Moscow consolidate its gains and declare a “victory,” a Ukrainian insurgency could ensue. Moscow could also seek to compound its ostensible winnings. However conceived, security against Russia would remain Ukraine’s foremost priority. For this, the EU cannot provide.
“It’s about our independence and our sovereignty,” President Zelensky said in his address to the World Economic Forum last month. Arguably so. Yet here, too, the European Union — with its stifling bureaucratic structures and more recent moves towards an “ever closer union” — could prove disappointing.
For sovereignty within the EU resides at the level of the community, not that of the state. This is the idea underpinning the notion of “European sovereignty” often touted by EU leaders. Advances in, say, collective justice, security, and foreign policy, require members to surrender much of their sovereignty to unaccountable EU institutions.
The ongoing Poland-EU saga — genuine concerns over aspects of Polish politics notwithstanding — is here instructive. The Dutch, the Germans, the Hungarians, and even the French, have at one time or another also all tussled with their European overlords over whose laws come first. The EU, of course, insists on its supremacy.
With the war as their backdrop, proponents of a more integrated Europe have now hastened their cause. President Macron and Chancellor Scholz have called for EU treaty reform as a means towards greater centralization. The former Belgian prime minister turned European parliamentarian, Guy Verhofstadt, has called for the Union to do away with member states’ veto power on military and security matters.
“The world of tomorrow is not a world of nation states,” he said. Oh, really? Is this the “European perspective” for which Ukrainians are so valiantly fighting — to have their sovereignty challenged, if not by force then by other, seemingly benign, means?
Indeed, if it is security and sovereignty that Ukraine seeks, what logic could be found in the European Union?
The difficulty for Kyiv is that there currently is no other attainable institution. NATO membership, as even Mr. Zelensky agrees, is a pipe dream. In this, Mr. Macron’s calls for a reevaluation of Europe’s institutions are not so misplaced. Yet such an evaluation should not yield — as Mr. Macron would have it — to greater centralization propelled by a harebrained “two speed Europe.”
It is the reverse that is needed.
Among the many ideas emerging from the conflict in Ukraine is the strength of Europe’s bi- and mini-lateral collaborations, particularly in the realm of defense cooperation. Such collaborations range from cooperation on surveillance, training, and command and control, to the creation of multinational units. The trilateral pact forged in February between Britain, Poland, and Ukraine is a most recent example.
If properly conceived, such mini-lateral arrangements could be a way of extending security assurances to Ukraine. They could also provide momentum on other issues for which there is limited regional consensus — additional arms supplies, say, or funding for reconstruction.
While not a panacea, such arrangements could be a more immediate way forward for providing Ukraine with the security it needs — without phantom promises and while safeguarding the sovereignty that it so craves.
Something to bear in mind as Ukraine’s likely candidacy for the EU is celebrated as a historic moment and a symbol of its belonging to the “European family.” The symbolism is indeed powerful. What Ukraine gets in return is arguably less so.
Ms. Gadzala Tirziu is a contributing editor of The New York Sun, covering foreign affairs. She is also Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Visiting Fellow with the Independent Women's Forum, and lecturer in international relations at the University of Zurich.