How the Ukraine war is resetting the EU’s institutional balance
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago, the European Commission has slowly started filling the political leadership vacuum increasingly left by the bloc’s member states.
Weeks before Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine, European Commission officials, in coordination with the US, the UK and Canada, started working to draw up sanctions against Moscow.
The EU executive, in consultation with member states, subsequently drafted ambitious proposals for the ten subsequent packages. But despite the speed of work on the first stage of sanctions, not all member states agreed.
Shortly after the EU decided to break the ‘taboo’ of financing the purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine, the Commission took the unprecedented step of assisting coordinate and fund member states’ weapons deliveries.
Most strikingly, however, the executive began to play a central role in pushing for Ukraine’s EU membership bid – something that the Juncker Commission’s ‘no enlargement in the near future’ line had been deemed unthinkable.
It was the first ever European Commission-to-government consultations in an active war zone, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the EU executive’s delegation of more than half of the bloc’s Commissioners in a heavily fortified Gorodetsky House in central Kyiv earlier this month, where he pressed them to advance his war-torn country’s accession to the bloc.
“We might look back at this two, three years from now and see that actually, some major things changed in the way that the European Commission’s public policy power is used and utilised to advance political goals,” Ricardo Borges de Castro, Head of Europe in the World, European Policy Centre, told EURACTIV.
According to him, the visit showed that the EU’s executive is more and more willing to use what former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso used to call the ‘technical charisma’.
The Kyiv talks included a discussion of military aid for Ukraine as well as a series of policy agreements that suggest the will for ‘progressive integration’ into the bloc, such as access for Ukrainian products to the EU single market, extending an EU no-roaming zone to Ukraine and participation in a number of programmes that will allow Ukrainian businesses and agencies to access EU funds.
Beyond sectoral deliverables, symbolism and photo-ops, the format, as several EU officials and diplomats pointed out to EURACTIV, was also a message.
“They are in a race of outbidding each other toward the Ukrainians,” one EU official said about Von der Leyen and European Commission President Charles Michel, just ahead of the planned visit.
Over the past months, member states’ cautious language in declarations and joint statements has started contrasting sharply with the messages that have been coming from within EU institutions, especially from the EU’s executive.
Von der Leyen had pledged to bring enlargement back when she arrived at the EU executive’s helm, but the promise was side-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reshuffled the cards.
In June, the European Commission recommended EU candidate status for Ukraine on the understanding that Kyiv undertakes a series of legislative and policy steps, dubbed the seven recommendations.
The EU executive is expected to release its assessment of Ukraine’s progress later this year, with an oral presentation of the EU executive’s seven reform recommendations expected in spring and the formal enlargement package in autumn.
Provided that positive progress is noted in those reports, some EU officials and diplomats believe the bloc could start discussions on opening accession talks.
Even European Council President Charles Michel hinted that a discussion among EU leaders on accession was likely by the end of the year, pending member states’ buy-in.
Centralisation on Ukraine
Most recently, the European Commission’s internal so-called Support Group for Ukraine has been turned into a whole new directorate dedicated to the country, focused on reconstruction and accession.
The new directorate would be placed within the EU executive’s DG NEAR, which oversees EU enlargement and the bloc’s relations with its near neighbourhood.
“Over the last year, there has been a lot of rhetoric and not much on substance – this has been changed, now we’re structured,” one EU official with knowledge of the matter told EURACTIV.
Separated along three areas of responsibility, the directorate was tasked with coordinating the EU response to Ukraine’s future reconstruction, taking care of economic and sectorial policies and overseeing reforms and monitoring rule of law and corruption efforts.
The purpose is to centralise efforts related to Ukraine and use it as a tool to guide and oversee Kyiv’s accession bid in the long-term, according to sources close to the matter.
Balance of power
Some in Brussels, however, believe that the EU executive’s boosted involvement does not come without risks.
“EU top leaders, and especially von der Leyen, seem to have tied their legacy to Ukraine’s accession process,” an EU senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“Let’s see whether EU member states are willing to be led by an institution without a democratic mandate,” the official added.
However, Russia’s war in Ukraine has shifted the power centres in Europe.
The bloc is split between emboldened Eastern Europeans, a less-hawkish Western European camp led by France and Germany, a tandem that has become less so after Chancellor Olaf Scholz took over from his predecessor, and a ‘middle-ground camp’.
“The Franco-German tandem, it’s still a combustion engine from a previous period, it doesn’t work properly, but Paris and Berlin will remain fundamental to move the needle forward in many policy areas,” Borges de Castro said.
Asked by EURACTIV about the possibility, that once the crisis situation is over, the European Commission’s new-won competencies would somehow be rolled back, he said such a scenario “would be rather difficult”.
“With the current permacrisis likely to persist, you need to be able to have an institution that is able to handle this on a much broader scope – problems will need to be faced more and more with executive capacity at the EU level,” he said.
While the majority of the EU executive’s staff would want their institution to be less political and more of an ‘honest broker’, the body’s future chiefs at the helm of the institution will need to decide whether to take a risk, Borges de Castro said.
“Especially looking at measures such as the ten sanctions packages, can we imagine a situation such as this without an institution like the Commission? It would have been a disaster,” he added.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Borges de Castro said.