Dead Men Tell Many Tales Reflection on one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Part III)
It is worth noting that one of the most important issues the past three years have brought to the forefront is the fact that the EU’s unity and capacity to act coherently have been challenged both by the pandemic and by the ongoing war; to be more specific, the political, cultural and economic differences translate to divergent interests and stances which, at times, have undermined the EU’s ability to act concertedly, and we have witnessed matters of internal political opportunism bleeding into matters pertaining to European affairs. The pandemic highlighted how the differences between countries led to different effects of the pandemic and different approaches, while also dangerously increasing Euroscepticism. For example, the fact that, in France, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, though losing to Emmanuel Macron, still garnered 42% of the votes while her party, the National Rally, managed to earn 89 seats in the legislative elections (about eleven times the number of seats it previously held) is quite telling. The war, on the other hand, despite rallying most of Europe against Russia’s invasion, still left a few significant country-sized chinks in its image of harmony and unity.
European disunity – between principles and pragmatism
The most glaring of them is, without a doubt, Hungary. Its Prime Minister and chief political figure, Viktor Orban, had been vocally criticised by EU leaders even before the beginning of the war for his controversial stance on a number of topics such as the LGBT community, immigration, and non-Europeans, diverging from the EU’s liberal values.
For all these controversies, he and his party, Fidesz, won a landslide victory the 2022 parliamentary elections in Hungary, gathering over 54% of the ballots. The EU launched a disciplinary procedure against Hungary shortly afterwards to freeze Hungary’s allotted Covid recovery funds for its disregard of the democratic rule of law and of the EU’s liberal values. This also occurred against the backdrop of the War in Ukraine, as Viktor Orban had yet again diverged from the European Union and NATO’s policy towards Russia, opting to not partake in the joint effort to impose major sanctions on Russia, opting instead for minor sanctions, declaring itself neutral and calling for ceasefires. In further dissonance with most of its EU and NATO allies, Orban also refrained from condemning Russia for the massacre in Bucha when the news outraged the world, though he did condemn the atrocities themselves. In August 2022, Hungary signed a new deal with Russia to increase its gas imports to 5.8 million cubic metres per day. Moreover, in January 2023 Hungary’s foreign minister has recently stated that the EU’s sanctions against Russia have harmed the EU member states’ economies more than they did Russia’s, echoing a similar sentiment voiced by Orban in September 2022. In retaliation against the EU’s disciplinary procedure, Hungary blocked an aid package worth €18 billion to Ukraine, forcing the EU to concede a deal with Hungary regarding the unblocking of some of its funds. Lately, however, Orban declared in January 2023 that Hungary will veto EU sanctions on Russia’s nuclear energy.
Poland has also clashed with the EU, with frictions between Warsaw and Brussels originating from similar discrepancies between the positions of the Polish government and the EU’s principles (e.g. with regards to abortion laws), as well as accusations that the Polish government’s reforms have harmed the rule of law by meddling with the judicial system, limiting its independence, prompting the Polish ruling party to initiate reforms to meet the EU’s standard in order to unlock the Covid recovery funds that the EU had suspended just like it had frozen Hungary’s. There was also the thorny issue of the use of a coal mine in Turow that the Czech Republic claimed is harming its environment, leading to fines against Poland that it declined to pay; eventually, the two countries reached an agreement that allows Poland to continue to use the mine despite protests from German and Czech NGOs.
Another EU member state that has deviated from the EU’s stance is Austria. Notably, relations between Russia and Austria have grown closer over the years as Austria’s commitment to neutrality led to closer ties between the two, and some of Austria’s notable politicians have collaborated closely with Russia or Russian companies even after exiting office. For instance, Austria’s former Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, was on the board of directors of Lukoil between 2019 and 2022; he resigned from his position after Russia invaded Ukraine. Furthermore, while Karin Kneissl was still Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, she danced with Vladimir Putin at her wedding in 2018, then began writing for the Russian state-owned Russia Today after the end of her tenure as minister, and was appointed a member on the board of Rosneft, Russia’s second largest state-owned oil company, though she resigned around mid-2022.
Smoke and fire
In terms of energy cooperation, in 2018 OMV, one of Austria’s most important oil and gas companies, signed a deal with Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom to increase Russian gas supplies to Austria. Although Austria began importing less energy from Russia when the war began, it has refused to impose sanctions on Russian imports of energy, and despite OMV reducing its imports of Russian energy after the invasion in Ukraine, Austria agreed to Russia’s demand to pay rubles for Russian gas. The country has also maintained its neutrality with regards to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The current ruling party in Austria, FPÖ, had maintained a friendly attitude towards Russia even after the illegal annexation of Crimea, and in 2016 signed a five-year cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. A more recent and infamous event occurred in 2019, when then Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after having been filmed agreeing to offer business contracts to the alleged niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for campaign funding and favourable news coverage. These examples illustrate how Austria’s policy of rapprochement with Russia led to tighter cooperation between the two, particularly compared to many other EU member states which have remained wary of the Kremlin. That being said, a darker side to the relations between the two countries emerged with the revelation that Russia’s espionage services have gained significant influence on Austria’s national security bodies, leading to Austria being seen as a hub for Russian intelligence operations. A recent example is Egisto Ott who, according to the Washington Post, managed several undercover agents in Austria’s domestic security service and sold state secrets to Russia prior to his apprehension in July 2022.
In late 2022, Austria vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen Area. Despite the two countries having met all eligibility criteria for over a decade, Austria has claimed that the two countries are a gateway for tens of thousands of illegal migrants to Austria, generating a problem for the Central-European country in this regard, much to the chagrin of the two countries which have denied the allegations, yet Austria has cited questionable statistics according to which Romania and Bulgaria allow illegal migrants to transit their territories, and has maintained its stance that Romania and Bulgaria are a security concern. It is perhaps pointless to dwell on the logical soundness of the claim that Romania, for instance, is a security concern given that Romania is a NATO member housing a US Ballistic Missile Defence System which will intercept any missile aimed at European territory, including at Austria’s territory, albeit Austria is not a member of NATO due to the neutrality stipulated in its constitution. It is an unlikely coincidence that, after Austria’s veto was first announced in early December, representatives of Austria’s OMV visited the Romanian President, with local media outlets claiming that the purpose was to negotiate a change in Romania’s current offshore law limiting the benefits of companies exploiting the energy reserves on Romania’s side of the Black Sea; a day later that visit, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer reiterated Austria’s veto. It is also an unlikely coincidence that Austria has accepted Croatia into the Schengen Area despite Croatia joining the EU later than either Romania or Bulgaria, given reports in November 2022 that Germany and Austria are interested in natural gas supplies from Croatia’s LNG terminal.
It would therefore appear that Austria’s stance may be determined less by what it perceives as a legitimate safety concern regarding Romania and Bulgaria’s borders, but more by matters of internal politics (i.e. by appealing to the perception that Nehammer is protecting Austria from illegal immigrants transiting Eastern Europe, while a survey showed that 52% of Austrians support the veto against the two countries) and business (lucrative oil and gas opportunities may yet sway Austria’s discourse).
Austria isn’t alone in its opposition to Romania and Bulgaria’s admission into the Schengen Area, though other EU countries may be all too content with letting Austria take the flak for its veto and play the role of the proverbial “bad cop”. The Netherlands, in particular, has long since vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s entry to the Schengen Area, citing concerns regarding corruption, organised crime and weak implementation of the rule of law; this has even spawned a running gag in Romania that the Netherlands would be willing to vote in Romania’s favour provided another country will veto instead. Unfortunately, political gags stop being funny once they play out in reality. Plus, the concerns invoked stand on highly questionable grounds, at least in Romania’s case. Corruption was never a criterion for Schengen accession; even if it were, Romania and Bulgaria have fulfilled the EU’s requirements as per their respective Cooperation and Verification Mechanisms tracking their progress in battling corruption. On top of that, both Romania and Bulgaria have better scores on Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index than Hungary, a long-standing Schengen member. Not only that, but the allegation that organised crime is rampant may play to the common intuition that Eastern Europe is a hotbed for such activities, but falter when looking at data, especially compared to current Schengen members.
According to the Global Organised Crime Index, published by the Switzerland-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime, Romania has a lower incidence of organised crime and an equal level of resilience against organised crime compared, for example, to the newly-admitted Croatia. Romania also has better scores on both counts compared even to two countries that have joined Schengen long before it, Slovakia and Greece, and similar scores to Hungary. As for the claims questioning adherence to the rule of law, they similarly fail the test of data. The Rule of Law Index, published by the World Justice Project, reveals that, while far from perfect, Romania still ranks higher than Schengen members Greece, Croatia and Hungary, and is very close to Poland and Slovakia. It therefore seems odd that the same criticisms that describe current Schengen members are levelled against prospective candidates. This practice of continuously moving the goalposts reveals that, similarly to Austria, the Dutch government is motivated less by legitimate security concerns and more by matters of internal politics. Fitch Solutions points out that the Dutch government’s stance may be driven by its right-wing, anti-immigration rivals gaining in popularity, so Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet does not want to seem permissive of immigration instead of focusing on the country’s economic problems. Furthermore, a recent report has shown that Dutch public opinion is still sceptical of expanding the EU towards the Western Balkans, so it can be inferred that preventing Schengen enlargement towards two Eastern European countries largely portrayed as havens for organised crime, corruption and illegal immigration would appeal to public concerns about safety; if such is the case, then the irony of rejecting Romania and Bulgaria while accepting Croatia, a Balkan country with similar problems as the other two, shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
This irony, however, comes dangerously close to resembling garden-variety political cynicism if we consider that the human rights record of Croatia’s border control leaves a lot to be desired, with the Human Rights Watch reporting widespread abuse at Croatia’s border towards asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, in spite of which Croatia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed the large majority of complaints about assaults committed by its police forces, which goes directly against any presumption of the rule of law. That being said, if one were to completely dismiss the notion of human rights, then such an approach probably would count as tight border control and security.
Values and valuations
Yet, the EU’s very identity is based on its values and principles at the core of which are human rights. Therein lies the puzzle that EU’s leadership has been facing for a while, having to find a balance between two losing extremes: on one end, there’s pragmatism at the expense of diving into hypocrisy and duplicity, while on the other end there’s moral uprightness at the cost of being ineffective and out of touch with reality. Dealing with the current challenges requires adaptation to the geopolitical realism of the present context, but doing so incurs the risk of treading upon its values and its wish to promote its values through its own example. A steadfast adherence to its values may maintain its credibility and loyalty to what it stands for, but may come at the expense of effectively safeguarding its interests. Both extremes would eventually foment greater distrust and Euroscepticism among its member states; worse, both extremes, should either materialise, would risk turning the EU into what it stands against.
An example of how problematic this dilemma can become emerges from the manner in which the European Commission handled Italy’s 2022 general elections. As the right-wing alliance Brothers of Italy was billed to win and its leader, Giorgia Meloni, eventually became the country’s Prime Minister, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave a warning that, should things go “in a difficult direction”, the EU has “the tools” to deal with Italy in the same way it dealt with Poland and Hungary, sparking much backlash from Italian politicians. In other words, von der Leyen, in her capacity as the head of the European Union’s executive institution, threatened the Italian citizens that they would suffer consequences should they choose a government that diverges from the European Union’s stances and views. The end goal of von der Leyen’s statement can be inferred to have been reducing the chances of a right-wing Eurosceptic faction to govern one of the EU’s founding countries, with a view to curtailing the wave of Euroscepticism and populism that has gained traction in EU over the past few years amidst the turmoil wrought by the pandemic and the War in Ukraine. Nevertheless, these threats amount to a thinly-veiled attempt at interfering with a member state’s internal affairs (which further reinforces scepticism and fears that the EU stifles its member states’ sovereignty), and are an unfortunately conspicuous instance of diplomatic clumsiness, a gaucherie that backfired and may have actually steeled the resolve of the Italian voters that favoured the Brothers of Italy to stick by their choice.
The takeaway for the European Union is that the Ukrainian war has revealed several fault lines that, in the long run, threaten to undermine the EU’s ability to function effectively. The EU has traditionally preferred to leave geopolitical matters in the hands of its member states, which was yet another strategic mistake. As the EU consists of sovereign states, each with its individual profiles, their geopolitical priorities are dictated by their individual interests as defined by their respective political, cultural and economic dynamics. With the EU expanding and becoming more diverse and heterogeneous while various external challenges tested the EU’s resilience (i.e. the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the migration crisis of 2015, the covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine), the differences between the member states began to be reflected in divergent stances as fears that EU membership brings more harm than good enabled Eurosceptic factions to rise to the forefront. At a time where unity and concerted action are of the utmost importance, we have witnessed instances of political ambitions and opportunism meddling with the functioning of the EU, with the War in Ukraine used as leverage for achieving national interests owing to the strategic use of veto-powered blackmail, and a unanimity-based admission system for the Schengen Area where a single state can overrule all others with their veto for internal political capital. If left unchecked, such tendencies will eventually undermine the EU’s effectiveness; at worst, they will fuel centrifugal tendencies and views that the EU erodes a state’s sovereignty, cultural identity and values, with the economically stronger members feeling they must bear the burden of supporting the lower performing ones, and the latter feeling more marginalised and dealt with unfairly.