Crucial EU Summit on Ukraine concluded today

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European Council President Charles Michel speaks next to Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the European Union leaders' summit, in Brussels, Belgium December 15, 2023. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

The European Union’s heads of state and government gathered in Brussels for the European Council meeting of December 14 and 15. The focal point of the agenda revolved around the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. While the war naturally has its dedicated agenda item, its repercussions spread to discussions on enlargement, the budget, and European defence, making the decisions forged during this meeting pivotal, not only for Ukraine but also for the EU as a whole.

The European Union faces the intricate challenge of harmonizing its internal cohesion with its foreign and security policies, concurrently safeguarding its inclination and capacity for future enlargement. This complex scenario introduces a set of substantial challenges for both Brussels and its member states.

One obvious challenge comes from the stance of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who explicitly opposes the continuation of EU funding for Ukraine’s war efforts. Orbán’s position serves as a strategic move to unblock approximately €22 billion (£19 billion) of EU aid to Hungary, which had been frozen due to concerns regarding judicial independence, academic freedom, and rights within Hungary. Another facet of this challenge relates to the situation of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority, as Orbán contends that they have been neglected and subjected to discrimination by Kyiv.

Despite some progress in thawing EU aid to Hungary, marked by the European Commission’s approval of an initial payout of about €900 million in November, and legislative steps taken to address minority rights on December 8, including a bill as part of legislation facilitating Ukraine’s EU accession, it remains uncertain whether Orban will withdraw his veto. Given Orban’s close ties with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, this issue is further complicated, casting doubt on the efficacy of these measures.

Orban linked lifting his veto with EU aid to Hungary, without which he impedes the release of €50 billion in aid for Ukraine and obstructs a proposed augmentation of the EU’s defence spending. The latter is of paramount significance as bolstering European capabilities to deter potential Russian aggression is imperative for the EU’s overall security.

The looming spectre of a potential second Trump presidency adds further uncertainty, raising questions about the United States’ commitments to NATO. Simultaneously, there is a risk of heightened tensions with China in the Pacific, diverting the attention of the U.S. from Euro-Atlantic defence concerns and exacerbating the challenges faced by the EU in maintaining security and stability in the region.

The challenges confronting the European Union have placed Ukraine in an increasingly precarious situation. With United States’ funding expected to expire by year-end and no clear path for its renewal, Kyiv finds itself increasingly reliant on its European partners. Adding to the concern is the fact that new aid commitments are currently at their lowest level since January 2022.

While the EU has surpassed the US as the largest committed military aid donor, this shift is not indicative of broad European support but rather the efforts of a select group of countries, including Germany and Scandinavia. Although military aid is crucial for Ukraine’s survival, it alone is insufficient. The approval of the proposed €50 billion support from the EU is pivotal, as the country faces a significant economic threat due to the substantial budget deficit resulting from its ongoing war effort.

Failure by the EU to initiate accession negotiations could escalate tensions within Ukraine, intensifying the blame game among its political and military leaders. Disputes between the government and opposition over Kyiv’s war strategy could further hinder the nation’s stability.

Despite President Volodymyr Zelensky’s intensified efforts to militarily counter Russia, a failed counteroffensive and Russia’s announcement of a substantial increase in its armed forces suggest a shifting momentum in Russia’s favour. Even if the European Council meeting results in the opening of accession negotiations and increased financial aid, territorial losses and potential Russian campaigns against critical infrastructure pose formidable challenges to Kyiv. Such circumstances raise doubts about the sustainability of western support.

This leaves Ukraine and the EU with difficult decisions. The lengthy and costly accession process coupled with the formidable reforms, financial burdens, and challenges associated with reintegrating liberated territories and populations, lie ahead.

Depending on how and when the war concludes, four scenarios could unfold. An early end to the war with a ceasefire freezing the current frontline might resemble a German scenario of prolonged division but eventual reunification, integrating part of Ukraine into the EU with security guarantees against further Russian aggression. Alternatively, a Cyprus scenario could emerge, where EU membership issues are deferred at the time of accession, leading to democratic consolidation and economic recovery in the government-controlled part of Ukraine.

If the war concludes with the restoration of all or part of currently Russian-occupied territories to Ukrainian sovereignty, a Croatia-style scenario involving military defeat of Russia and reintegration becomes highly unlikely given current battlefield realities. A Bosnia-style negotiated settlement resulting in a dysfunctional state and no reintegration may be more plausible but undesirable due to its potential impact on EU accession.

The challenge for EU leaders at their year-end summit is to chart a course that allows Ukraine to weather the challenging winter and year ahead both militarily and economically. This could potentially pave the way for a negotiated settlement with Russia and eventual EU membership.

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