View from Brussels: Killing the sacred cows of the EU

The European Union will buy half a billion euros in weapons and send them to Ukraine, at a decisive moment for the bloc’s geopolitical credentials. Vladimir Putin’s attack rewrites the way Brussels does business.

Not so long ago, the EU was unsure whether or not to bail out one of its own member states – Greece – at the height of the financial crisis. Ultimately, the aid came with harsh austerity measures and fueled anti-EU sentiment across the country.

This has rightly prompted many Brussels observers to conclude that the EU is crippled by its own institutional architecture and too turgid to do anything meaningful. Countless other decisions made over the following years only confirmed this analysis.

Lately, this conclusion does not hold water.

Yesterday EU leaders said they would spend 500 million euros from the bloc’s security budget on arms and supplies for Ukraine. This is the very first time that Brussels will fund arms support for a non-member currently under attack.

“I will propose today to use the European Peace Facility for two emergency aid measures – to finance the supply of lethal equipment to the Ukrainian army, as well as fuel, protective equipment and urgently needed medical supplies,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel said.

“Another taboo has fallen,” he insisted, adding that EU forces will also supply Ukraine with fighter jets. These would be provided by eastern member states, which have the same Russian-built fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly.

Other EU members such as Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and many others also send weapons, ammunition and supplies to Ukraine.

The importance of these two EU decisions in the grand scheme of things cannot be overestimated. Whether or not that’s enough to stop Putin’s forces in the short term is an open question, but it completely rewrites the Brussels playbook.

Since Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission took office in 2019, its top officials have tried to sell the idea that this European executive is a “geopolitical Commission”, a far cry from the more technocratic administrations of years past. .

Until this crisis, there was little evidence to support this self-proclaimed label. Missteps with the supply of Covid vaccines, allowing countries like Hungary and Poland to get away with breaches of the rule of law, and disappointing ambition on climate change have all counted against this.

The praise should be given where it is due: the Commission and the EU as a whole are moving together at a remarkable pace, especially considering the complexity of the decision-making processes for things like sanctions and the purchase of weapons.

This all fits quite nicely into what some Europeans like to call the “Monnet method”, named after a French politician – and the closest individual to the EU to a founding father – Jean Monnet. It essentially postulates that Brussels needs crises to build its institutions and policies.

Boy, has he been getting them in spades lately.

If someone had said just two years ago that the European Commission would borrow hundreds of billions of euros and distribute that money to the 27 member states in the form of grants and loans, they would have had the room laughed.

Mutualized debt was a sacred cow, as was the arms deal with Ukraine. Both cattle are now completely slaughtered, because just a few weeks ago the Commission started repaying the 800 billion euros it borrows on behalf of the EU.

Even at the beginning of this year, this fund presented itself as a sacred cow: a unique piece, not to be repeated. It was only an unprecedented global pandemic that convinced warmongering countries to reluctantly sign up.

But now all bets are off. The fund could be replicated for all sectors where the EU has to spend a lot to get rid of the Kremlin’s hooks, whether it’s climate policies aimed at reducing dependence on gas or pro-industry initiatives that have the same effect.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is far from over, so who knows what else will fall by the wayside before all of this is – hopefully – over. Nobody dared to think that Germany would give up on its big gas pipeline project with Russia, and yet Nord Stream 2 is now in a catatonic state.

The Bundesrepublik’s green environment minister even admitted that experts are investigating whether Germany’s last two nuclear power plants can be kept online beyond the end of this year.

No one could have predicted this without being fitted with a straitjacket immediately afterwards.

These strange times we live in have even sparked jokes in Brussels that long stalled legislative updates such as a banking union, a financial transaction tax or major air traffic management reform will be completed by here Tuesday night at this rate.

If there’s a bit of legislative business on the record and it can be tied to “sticking to the Kremlin,” you can bet there’ll be momentum behind lawmakers wanting to pass it.

Vladimir Putin could perform some of the greatest magic tricks Europe has ever seen if a universal phone charger is agreed, Sweden finally adopts the euro and the UK joins the EU…

Well maybe the last pushes it a bit. At the moment, it looks like Ukraine are more likely to join the club.

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