Open Europe Blog

EU NATO other?

Ukraine has now signed part of its Association Agreement with the EU, 3 out of 7 chapters – general principles, institutions and the somewhat controversial “political” chapter. The chapters on trade have been postponed (though the EU has unilaterally removed tariffs on Ukrainian goods).

The political chapter includes provisions on defence including promoting “gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy” the (CSDP). 

This raises two questions. Firstly, is the EU repeating the same mistake again? It’s now accepted that it was a mistake to effectively try to force Ukraine to choose between Russia and the EU – an impossible choice for Kiev. As we argued in our recent briefing on this topic, the EU’s “all or nothing” approach to its neighbourhood is no longer a suitable model for dealing with countries that don’t have an immediate prospect of full EU membership. Both in terms of how it risks draw new dividing lines and create new geopolitical hotspots (the opposite to what EU enlargement has always aimed to achieve – and due to the very high barriers to EU membership existing as a result of decades of “ever closer union”.

But by maintaining a clear security element in the AA at this sensitive time, isn’t the EU effectively cementing Ukraine’s Russia-or-west choice given that Russia won’t want to accept anything that smells of security integration? Would it not have been better to sign the less threatening trade chapter first? Moreover, would it not have been better to wait a couple of months until after the Ukrainian elections and sign the AA with the new Ukrainian government, which would have an explicitly democratic mandate to do so?

EU diplomats say such fears might be over-stated given that the foreign policy/security chapter is actually quite mild in nature not committing anyone to anything else than dialogue, but is this how Moscow sees it?

Secondly, could neutrality be a way to square Ukraine’s European ambitions with its Russian dilemma? Austria has suggested that Ukraine could remain neutral, as indeed Austria sees itself, in order to calm relations with its large angry and increasingly isolated neighbour. But is this possible and how neutral is Austria in actual fact?

Is the EU a military alliance?

While NATO is obviously a military alliance, the EU does have its own defence policy; it sends troops into conflict zones and runs missions such as Operation ATALANTA in Somalia and missions in Bosnia and Africa. It also has a mutual defence clause inserted via the Lisbon Treaty. Not all EU members, including Austria are in NATO but Austria has sent troops on EU missions. The EU and NATO are not synonymous but they do work closely together under the Berlin Plus Agreement, setting out terms of engagement. The difference between the two even for neutral states is now blurred.

So is it possible to “gradually converge” with the EU and remain neutral? Well in a technical sense yes. Ireland and Sweden will consider themselves neutral – or at least “non-aligned”. But Ireland and even Sweden have committed troops to international missions. Norway has also sent troops on EU missions while remaining outside of the EU. If the current accession procedure is followed, it is therefore unlikely that Ukraine would join the EU and be able to remain outside of all EU defence agreements, unless special provisions would be made.

EU NATO can you spot the difference

Should this all worry Russia? Logically is should not because the EU, as we have seen with regards to Ukraine, is hardly a bellicose giant and poses no threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. But viewed from Russia’s paranoid perspective, “ever closer union” might lead them to draw the wrong conclusions.

Again, a less integrated, less political and less over-reaching deal with Ukraine to carefully absorb it into Europe might be the most sensible option.

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