A test of EU leadership

If Europe wants to be taken seriously on the international stage it must show some leadership over Russia's annexation of Crima

The European Union response to Russia’s actions in the Crimea has exposed deep divisions within the economic bloc. If this issue represents a test for the EU’s ability to take a leadership role in an international crisis, the results do not look encouraging at a glance.

In retaliation over the recent Crimean referendum, which Europe deems illegal, the EU has joined the USA in imposing sanctions on Russia. But so far these sanctions have been limited to a mere 21 individuals, including three senior Russian commanders, the prime minister of Crimea, a deputy speaker of the Duma and other senior officials. 

The move has been widely criticised as toothless, but it also underscores the inherent difficulties faced by EU member states when it comes to taking a position against an international trade partner. 

Russia is highly dependent on EU imports, particularly from Germany; which – like many other European countries – is in turn reliant on Russian gas and oil exports. This creates automatic barriers to a common European approach. While the UK is pushing for stronger sanctions, Germany appears reluctant to antagonise its 11th-biggest trade partner, and threaten bilateral trade worth more than €76 billion.

The fact that EU sanctions affect only two dozen individuals, from an original proposed list of 120, attests to this division. Questions also have to be asked about whether sanctions are indeed a solution to this crisis. For sanctions to be effective they must entail real consequences for the target country. Given the extent of trade with Russia, the EU has plenty of cards in its hands. Russia is highly dependent on imports from the EU, and a moratorium on EU natural gas and oil imports from Russia – or at least a credible threat from Brussels that it is prepared to do so – would certainly put pressure on Russia to at least soften its stance. Putin’s military machine, after all, is reliant on income generated by energy exports.

It would not be an easy step to take, and would almost certainly drive up energy prices in Germany and the rest of the European Union. Economic growth, already weak, would suffer. 

Ultimately, however, the EU must decide what sort of role it intends to play in an as yet vaguely defined crisis. European countries must be willing to pay a price if their efforts are to be taken seriously. By imposing sanctions which simultaneously exclude or protect lucrative trade agreements, it cannot be considered either effective or credible.

If we want an equal, democratic Europe, economics cannot be the only priority. The provisional (and right-wing) Ukrainian government has a neoliberal vision in line with the EU’s agenda, but that in itself should not be the only objective. Will the Ukraine also uphold the rule of law, and safeguard human and civil rights? Will it take measures to and prevent going down the same road Greece and other EU countries following the Troika-politics of austerity? 

If the EU hopes for the Europeanisation of Ukraine, it must be also ready to insist that the European values it stresses so much in other spheres – adherence to the European convention of human rights, for instance – are given equal prominence in any future rebuilding of that country. And if it means to occupy the moral high ground in its stand-off with Russia, it must ensure that its own intentions are truly worthy and above suspicion.

Nor can it ignore the fact that inaction – or ineffectual action – may have severe consequences. The EU must not underestimate the possibility that Putin could yet move to occupy eastern Ukraine, where polls in several large cities show that three-quarters of residents reject the popular revolt in Kiev, and between 70% and 90% of the residents in this region say that Russian, and not Ukrainian, is their primary language.

For much the same reason one must question whether the uprising against Yanukovich is truly representative of the broader popular mood. The West may even open itself to the charge of hypocrisy on this point. Putin has already drawn parallels with the EU and US involvement in Kosovo: and while the comparison is unfair – there is no Crimean correlative to the attempted genocide in Kosovo – it also reminds us of the inevitable complexity of such crises.

Either way, the EU has good cause to want to involve itself in the European aspirations of a neighbour country. It certainly cannot ignore such a volatile situation on its doorstep. But its choice of action will also reveal whether it is indeed driven by a greater vision of unity and equality, and more cogently whether it is even equipped to assume a position of command in international emergencies.

If Europe wants to be taken seriously on the international stage it must show some leadership in this issue. It cannot expect to gain credibility if it puts the financial gains of its individual members before the interests of people in Europe and elsewhere; nor by giving the impression of reluctance to take any hard-hitting decisions. 

The results of its efforts so far indicate that it may have to consider radically reforming its decision-making processes, or relinquishing its international leadership ambitions altogether. 

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