European Commission HQ lit with Ukraine flag

View from Brussels: Killing the EU’s sacred cows

Image credit: European Union 2022

The European Union will purchase half a billion euros of weapons and send them to Ukraine, in what is a watershed moment for the bloc’s geopolitical credentials. Vladimir Putin’s attack is rewriting how Brussels goes about its business.

Not so long ago, the EU was unsure whether or not to bail out one of its own member states – Greece – during the very worst of the financial crisis. In the end, help came with severe austerity measures attached and bred anti-EU sentiment across the country.

It quite rightfully prompted many Brussels-watchers to conclude that the EU is crippled by its own institutional architecture and too turgid to get anything meaningful done. Countless other decisions made in the following years only confirmed that analysis.

Lately, that conclusion is failing to hold water.

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

"I will today propose to use the European Peace Facility for two emergency assistance measures – to finance the supply of lethal material to the Ukrainian army, as well as urgently needed fuel, protective equipment and medical supplies," said the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell.

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

Other EU members such as Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and more are also sending weapons, ammunition and supplies to Ukraine.

It cannot be overestimated how significant both of these EU decisions are in the grand scheme of things. Whether or not it will be enough to stop Putin’s forces in the short term is an open question but it is completely rewriting the Brussels playbook.

Since the European Commission of Ursula von der Leyen took office in 2019, its top officials have tried to sell the notion that this EU executive is a “geopolitical Commission”, nothing like the more technocratic-leaning administrations of years gone by.

Until this crisis, there was little evidence to support that self-styled label. Missteps with Covid vaccine procurement, allowing the likes of Hungary and Poland to get away with rule of law breaches, and underwhelming ambition on climate change all counted against it.

Praise needs to be given where it is due: the Commission and the EU as a whole is getting its act together at a remarkable pace, especially when you consider how complex the decision-making processes are for things like sanctions and weapons purchasing.

It all fits quite nicely into what some EU-wonks like to call the ‘Monnet method’, named after French politician – and the closest individual the EU has to a founding father – Jean Monnet. It essentially posits that Brussels needs crises to build up its institutions and policies.

Boy, has it received them in spades lately.

If anyone had said just two years ago that the European Commission would be borrowing hundreds of billions of euros and distributing that cash to the 27 member states in grants and loans, they would have been laughed out of the room.

Mutualised debt was a sacred cow, just like the Ukraine weapons deal. Both cattle are now comprehensively slaughtered, as just a couple of weeks ago the Commission started paying out the €800 billion it is borrowing on behalf of the EU.

Even at the beginning of this year, that fund looked itself to be a sacred cow: a one-off, not to be repeated. It was only an unprecedented global pandemic that convinced hawkish countries to begrudgingly sign up to it.

But now all bets are off. The fund could be replicated for every sector where the EU needs to spend big to get the Kremlin’s hooks out of it, be that on climate policies to reduce gas dependence or industry-friendly initiatives that have the same effect.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is nowhere near 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 nix its big pipeline project with Russia, yet Nord Stream 2 is now in a catatonic state.

The Bundesrepublik's Green environment minister has even conceded that experts are looking into whether Germany's remaining couple of nuclear power plants can be kept online beyond the end of this year.

Nobody could have possibly predicted that without being fitted with a straitjacket immediately afterwards.

These strange times we are living through have even prompted jokes in Brussels that long-stalled law updates such as a banking union, financial transaction tax or major air traffic management reform will be completed by Tuesday evening at this rate.

If there is a bit of legislative business on the docket and it can be linked to 'sticking it to the Kremlin', you can bet that there will be momentum behind the lawmakers that want to pass it.

Vladimir Putin might be performing some of the greatest magic tricks ever seen in Europe if a universal phone charger is agreed, Sweden finally adopts the euro and the UK rejoins the EU… 

Well maybe the last one is pushing it a bit. At the moment, it looks like Ukraine is more likely to get membership of the club.

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