Does the European Commission even have a mandate to challenge Russia?

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (Copyright: Ministry of the Presidency. Government of Spain (Attribution or Attribution), via Wikimedia Commons)

By Belgian journalist Lode Goukens

Upon taking office, Ursula von der Leyen promised that “her” European Commission would become a geopolitical European Commission. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission saw an opportunity to put this into practice. However, the question should be raised whether the European Commission has a mandate to do all of this, and why all of a sudden it needs to be so drastic. The possible consequences are incalculable.

An EU defence policy parallel to NATO

The war Russia started as an aggressor has forged unanimity in Europe. Everyone rightly sympathizes with Ukraine, which is under attack. The EU suddenly seems to be able to wage an economic war against the regime in Moscow while being united, also in concert with the British. However, the self-confidence the EU has derived from this holds dangers.

A large number of EU member states are members of the defence alliance NATO. Ireland, Austria, Finland and Sweden are neutral, even if the last two are getting closer to joining NATO. Despite the EU’s cooperation with NATO and Von der Leyen’s open flirtation with NATO (as evidenced by how the Atlantic Council recently celebrated her), the EU Commission prefers a European defence in parallel with NATO.

Outside of the EU’s competences

Last year, that geopolitical mission consisted primarily of building an EU army. For years, this project has been wishful thinking for, amongst others, France and Spain. Thanks to the Russian invasion however, EU military actors now are able to pull all kinds of plans out of the drawer, in a bid to quickly take advantage of the crisis.

During an interview last weekend, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, advocated numerous sanctions against Russia, buying weapons for Ukraine, as well as integrating Ukraine into the EU. Those are all things for which the European Commission is not actually competent. Even the pre-emptive censorship against Russian state media which she announced is outside the EU’s competence. Only individual member states can do that, to the extent it would be a good idea (which, by the way, it is not, since censorship is not a European value).

“There needs to be positive movement”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Spanish socialist Josep Borrell (picture), was of course quick to jump on the bandwagon. On Monday, he tweeted:

“The military staff of the European Union have provided us with a value assessment of the situation, gathering all the intelligence information that the member states contribute.”

In other words, the EU Military Staff is clearly working on war scenarios. It should be noted this is a military staff led by a French Vice Admiral, at the service of the European Commission.

Even the European Commissioner for EU enlargement got involved. This is how the European Commission’s spokesman responded on Monday, about EU candidate Serbia’s refusing to adopt EU sanctions against Russia:

“We expect candidate members to conform to our foreign policy decisions, not overnight, but there needs to be positive movement.”

The EU is throwing oil on the fire

Critical voices have warned that the bold statements by Von der Leyen and Borrell threaten to throw oil on the fire and that they are more likely to provoke Russia than anything else.

The EU’s financing of €450 million in weapons for Ukraine and the EU’s promise to send fighter jets to Ukraine – meanwhile debunked as incorrect, despite Borrell openly stating it would happen – do pose a risk.

The Hungarian government, which fully sided with neighboring Ukraine, therefore decided on Monday not to allow the transport of military equipment across its territory. Imagine if the Russians would come up with the crazy idea to bomb those transports.

If the provision of fighter planes would materialize after all, they would need to come from somewhere. Because Ukrainian fighter pilots only have experience with Russian MIGs, it is likely that the promised planes will consist of existing MIGs from Eastern European EU member states.

Empty promises

Some of the EU’s sanctions mentioned by von der Leyen were already approved by EU member states in the so-called COREPER-II format when she mentioned them.

However, all Von der Leyen’s other promises are the competence of the European Council (of Heads of Government) and subject to unanimity. That includes the EU membership she offered to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Zelensky already proudly signed an application which he shared on Twitter. Nice for communication purposes, but in practice this is unrealistic. In any case, EU candidate status could unlock support and funds. The momentum for such an application is there, but practically, so much more needs to happen.

Opportunities offered by war

Obviously, the high-profile interventions by Von der Leyen and the European Commission revolve entirely around the momentum created by the Russian invasion. The u-turn made by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made last weekend, which involved increasing defense investments by 100 billion euros, strongly appeals to supporters of an EU army.

In itself, Scholz’s decision did however not come out of the blue. Back in September already, Scholz promised to increase defense spending to meet NATO’s standard. Europe’s military industry would prefer to see this budget go to an EU army instead of NATO, where there is a desire to drastically reduce the number of defense systems, something which could benefit American manufacturers.

But fundamentally, the war in Ukraine has very little to do with that. For Scholz, the war offers an opportunity to get his Green coalition partners on board with his plans for defence spending. For the European Commission, the war offers opportunities to keep those investments European. Never waste a good crisis.

Dangerous amateurism

By jumping into the hole NATO has deliberately left out of fear of escalation, the European Commission is attempting to bolster its geopolitical role. Not Russia is the opponent here, but NATO.

One danger, however, is not imaginary. The amateurism of Von der Leyen, Borrell & co. is at odds with NATO’s years of experience in relations with Russia. The famous red lines set out to interact with Moscow have proven their worth time and again. The Russian military leadership, on the other hand, hasn’t got any experience with the energetic EU army project which is being furthered. The risks of misunderstandings here are not being insured with procedures and direct communication channels.

Therefore, it would be wiser for the European Commission to focus on economic sanctions and leave the geopolitical aspect to the European Council (composed of Heads of Government), and thereby no longer communicate ahead of its turn. If it does not do that, the Commission risks dragging NATO into a Third World War, all because of an EU army barely composed of 1500 men.

Originally published in Dutch, by Flemish magazine Doorbraak.

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