Skip to main content

Ukraine Series: A Watershed Moment for Europe

March 18, 2022
Christina Schneider

Talking Policy Podcast

In the latest from Talking Policy’s series on Ukraine, host Lindsay Morgan talks with UC San Diego professor of political science, Christina Schneider, who co-leads IGCC’s Future of Democracy initiative, about the already-significant implications of the invasion of Ukraine on European economic, military, and humanitarian policies. This interview was conducted on March 10, 2022.

Subscribe to Talking Policy on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

We’re here today to talk with Christina Schneider, who co-leads IGCC’s Future of Democracy Initiative and is a professor of political science at UC San Diego. Christina’s research focuses on the domestic politics of cooperation and bargaining in international organizations with a focus on the European Union. In 2013, she was awarded the Jean Monnet Chair of the EU, Jean Monnet being one of the founding fathers of the EU. Christina, welcome to Talking Policy.

Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

Is the invasion of Ukraine a 9/11 moment for Europe? What are the long-term ramifications of this invasion?

While it is early, the current actions of the European Union, and academic research on political development and integration in the EU more broadly, indicates that the war in Ukraine indeed has the potential to create the momentum to lead to a significant shift in how the political, economic, and military order is structured in Europe. The EU has always been about war and peace. But the urgent sense of security that existed right after World War II has faded over time and is barely remembered, especially by younger Europeans.

To understand just how big the current policy shifts are, consider how the EU was structured and how little progress it has made in terms of integration. So, for the last 30 years, EU members have been more or less unwilling to delegate serious fiscal responsibilities such as taxing, spending, and borrowing to the EU. The EU also had tremendous problems dealing with the refugee crisis, especially in 2015, because EU members denied a centralized policy on asylum and did not allow for a common control over its external borders. There has also been very minimal security and defense coordination, which has fallen far short of what would be needed to respond effectively in times of an act of aggression from an outside state. And finally, the EU proved relatively toothless in its response to the far-right extremist parties promoting Euroskeptic views and leading to democratic backsliding across a number of European states.

But paradoxically, the EU has also been most likely to move toward greater integration in times of deep crisis. So, for example, the decision to integrate fiscal policies was a consequence of the European debt crisis, and the decision to centralize health policies further is a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. A decision to move forward with deeper security and defense cooperation was made after the UK’s decision to exit the EU. In all of these crises, there was a prediction that the EU would implode and fail, but it oftentimes has muddled through and come out stronger as a consequence.

The current situation is a far, far greater threat to Europe than any of the threats the EU has faced in the last 30 years. This war has shown Europeans that Russia is a serious threat to European collective security. And it confirms that European integration is still in essence about war and peace. So, for example, in the draft conclusions of this week’s Versailles Summit, they stated that Russia’s war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history. This aligns with the unprecedented policy shifts that we see right now in Europe. EU members have implemented an unprecedented number of financial and economic sanctions on Russia. There is now a very serious attempt to develop a long-term policy to reduce gas and oil dependency on Russia, something that seemed unthinkable even after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. There’s increased political unity within the European institutions and also within European countries. Strikingly, Hungary and Poland, who have been quite obstructive in their decision making, suddenly stopped being obstructive. They are now supportive of sanctions, and have reduced their pro-Russian rhetoric. There’s also increased cooperation on refugees.

Back in 2015, during the Syrian refugee crisis, Europe was in political turmoil, and the Central and Eastern European countries especially pushed against an opening of their borders. And now it’s exactly those countries that have not only opened their borders, but welcomed refugees almost unconditionally. And there is also the potential of actual EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

We’re also experiencing a momentous turn in the EU defense strategy, which includes greater cooperation and strengthening of EU Collective Defense Article, and an increased commitment to military and defense spending. Germany is a very good example. The invasion of Ukraine has achieved what the EU has pushed for for years and what seemed unthinkable even in January, which is the revolution in German security and defense policy. This includes a $113 billion Defense Fund to modernize the German military, which will be anchored in German Basic Law so it cannot be used for any other purposes. Our commitment will increase annual defense spending to more than 2 percent of GDP. The current level is below 1.5 percent. Germany will also supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, something that has been previously rejected as being incompatible with German Basic Law. And it will purchase armed drones. The German Chancellor also announced that Germany would indefinitely suspend Nord Stream 2 pipeline projects.

These shifts really are tremendous and many of them will be ingrained in domestic law. And this means that they’re likely to shift policies in the long term.

Jean Monnet said that Europe would be forged in crises. And it sounds like he was right—these are extraordinary policy shifts. I want to back up and ask you about some of the European strategic choices in the lead up to the invasion of Ukraine. One of the questions on a lot of people’s minds is why didn’t European institutions, why didn’t the United States, or the West more broadly, stop Putin? What do you think have been some of Europe’s most important strategic errors in the lead up to this invasion?

This is the million-dollar question. But let me just make a few observations. It is important to remember that even though Ukraine is officially sovereign, unofficially NATO and the EU have always accepted informally that Ukraine was seen by Russia as a buffer country between the West and the East, and a country that Putin also sees as really belonging to Russia. That has created more hesitancy in terms of any response.

There is, of course, a huge concern that we’re dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons, and any military involvement on the side of the EU or NATO could lead to another world war. In previous conflicts—Georgia, Crimea, the eastern Ukrainian regions—Putin has always been very good at finding justifications that have a kernel of truth to justify the intervention. He doesn’t have that right now. There was also until, until just a few days ago, a lack of belief that the security of NATO members would be threatened. And that has radically changed over the last few days.

Then there’s the high dependency on Russia in both the agriculture and energy sectors. I talked about this in 2014, during the last war in Ukraine, and one of the suggestions was to radically reduce European dependency in these sectors. And that hasn’t happened. I see this as one very big strategic mistake, along with the belief that Russia would stop at Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk, and that it wouldn’t militarily intervene in the west of Ukraine.

Another observation is the close relationship that many countries have, especially Germany, with Putin and with Russia. All of these factors lead to a foreign policy that was focused on cooperation, and friendly relations and economic integration. Europeans really had a false expectation that this would be the right strategy to achieve peace in Russia without causing a war and without facing serious energy repercussions. It explains why Europe had little appetite for taking collective defense seriously.

The new German Chancellor, Olaf Schultz, indefinitely paused certification of the Nord Stream 2, which is a set of offshore natural gas pipelines in Europe that go under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Why did Germany do this? And do you think that they will hold to this?

So, it is quite a tectonic shift. The speech of the German chancellor in the Bundestag was a watershed moment for any German given its pacifist views and its very close relations with Russia. To understand the significance of this, it’s important to know that most of Germany’s gas, oil, and coal comes from Russia—almost 40 percent of its gas—which is in line with the average European dependency on gas. On top of that, Germany’s gas storage levels are at an historically low level, after Putin refused to increase gas during the shortage last winter. So, the expectation is that if Putin cuts the pipelines, Europeans will face rationing of gas, and their prices for energy will skyrocket.

The current discussions at the EU level indicate that leaders plan to reduce dependency more rapidly now than initially planned. The current discussions that I just heard this morning center on a target of 2027, or even 2023. It is unlikely that we will see an immediate ban on oil and gas similar to the U.S. ban. In my view, the decision to freeze Nord Stream 2 coupled with the persistent reluctance to join the U.S. ban on oil and gas imports completely and immediately can be seen as part of a strategy to face our dependency on Russia in the long term, while averting a serious energy crisis in the short and medium term. It is an extremely delicate balance to navigate.

Less than a week after the invasion, the Ukrainian government, followed by the governments of Moldova and Georgia, applied to join NATO and the EU. There has been some historic skepticism about their joining but now there are some signals of openness. Is Europe changing its mind on this?

Yes, this is a great question. I’ve spent years researching EU enlargement, especially with a focus on Eastern European countries. In some ways it does. But looking back at the discussions during the 2014 war, I actually unfortunately have not seen significantly different rhetoric, at least in terms of actual membership. For example, back in 2005, even the Commission president said that Ukraine’s future is in the EU, which is very similar to statements that the Commission made in recent days. I would argue that the likelihood of a rapid succession is still low, and if it happens, it will be far in the future. It’s important to remember, though, that the EU already has an association agreement with Ukraine, which has established greater economic ties. These association agreements are typically seen as an initial step toward membership.

The EU was built to promote security, peace, and stability in Europe by fostering democracy and creating economic prosperity through economic integration. Any European country that wants to be part of the EU is welcome to join if it can fulfill these criteria of democracy and stable economics.

So what are the major challenges to enlargement? First of all, there is Russia’s strong objection to Ukraine’s membership in the EU. We often focus on NATO as the red line. But it is important to remember that it was the refusal of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the association agreement with the EU that led to the 2013 Maidan protests, which then gave Russia the pretext to invade and occupy Crimea. The EU has been seen as a redline for Russia in terms of Ukraine; they do not want Ukraine to become a democratic Western oriented country. Public support for EU membership for Ukraine itself is divided, especially in the east. Although that might change, of course, with the invasion in the Ukraine. And the rules of accession are quite demanding and require the support of all 27 EU member states. That’s not an easy feat to achieve and accession negotiations have often taken many years. Turkey is still negotiating, and it received official candidacy status in the 1980s.

If the EU governments agree on official candidacy in the Council, applicants need to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria, which include the requirement of being a full democracy. The state also has to be sovereign, which means it has to have control over its borders, and it has to have a functioning market economy. They also have to be able and willing to implement the EU body of rules and law, the so-called  Acquis Communautaire.

The problem is, Ukraine is not a stable democracy right now, according to Freedom House; its sovereignty is contested and has been ever since the annexation of Crimea; and it’s far from being a functioning market economy, not to mention other concerns about the rule of law and corruption.

And then, of course, there’s the EU’s Defense article. So there’s Article 42(7), which is akin to NATO’s Article 5, which makes it clear that an attack on an EU country is an attack against all of the EU. So that means that if Ukraine became a member today, the EU would have to respond to Russia potentially militarily to defend it, likely leading to another world war.

Fast tracking countries is also not likely to happen because it would require a change in treaties that all members would have to agree on. And this is politically highly controversial, because negotiations are the only leverage the EU has to get countries to implement the necessary political and economic reforms, right? And this in itself is seen as vital for the political unity and stability of the EU. So, there are tremendous concerns that a premature accession of Ukraine could lead to an unraveling of the Union itself. I cannot emphasize enough how problematic these issues are for European integration.

All this indicates to me that the EU isn’t likely to fast track Ukraine succession. The much more likely outcome would be that the EU grants Ukraine applicant status, with a more long-term prospect for membership. But all of that depends on what status Ukraine will have going forward. And it is not clear at all that candidacy status would deter Putin. It might actually further provoke him.

What about the former communist countries who are members of the EU and are now on the frontlines of a war? I’m thinking of Romania, the Baltic states, Poland—do you think that their voices will carry more weight in the EU now, given the circumstances?

The view that EU policy is entirely driven by powerful members is not quite true. All states have carried significant weight within the decision-making process of the EU because compromise and consensus-building has always been an important norm within the EU. That has been challenged recently especially by countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, but my sense is that the war will likely reinforce the importance of political unity and these principles, as it becomes clear that the EU has the potential to be larger than the sum of its European parts.

What are the implications of the crisis for European domestic politics? Obviously, we just went through Brexit. Macron has an election next month. How do you see things shifting? Or do you see things shifting?

They’re absolutely shifting and the implications for domestic politics will be large, in the short term and potentially also in the long term. The war in Ukraine has necessitated and facilitated a reapproachment between the UK and the EU. It’s been quite a toxic relationship. And we see that already, there is more cooperation. In the long term, I think there is some hope for the currently strained relationship and for closer bilateral cooperation in the future.

In France, it is likely that Macron will benefit politically, as the current crisis exposes the limits of Europe to act on its own. But it also provides Europe with a rationale to make the changes that France has pushed for. Macron has benefited from this.

It has been a huge challenge for far-right parties, which have been largely pro-Russian. They’re now very busy backpedaling their statements, and they’ve seen a decline in support. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing governments have become much less obstructive within Europe. I already mentioned that Orban said that he will not sanction Russia; in Italy, the far-right under Salvini has come under really hot water because of its close ties to Putin. In Bulgaria, there has been a shift in public opinion, which was historically pro-Russian. A minister was forced to resign because he said we shouldn’t call the invasion a war. So, there is a huge public pushback against the pro-Russian rhetoric of far-right wing parties, and that might have electoral consequences that could be quite long lasting.

I’d like to ask for your personal reflections as someone who has spent your professional life devoted to looking at issues of European integration and cooperation. What is it like to watch these events unfold?

It feels horrifying. It’s extremely emotional. My family has roots in Western and Eastern Europe; we have many friends and we have family who were directly exposed to the war. It has torn through some of the family because we have members of the family who were very exposed to Russian media and viewpoints are very different. So, it is highly emotional.

As someone who very strongly identifies as a European, it is unimaginable to see not only that there is another war in the middle of Europe, but also the inability to respond to the human suffering that is happening right now. There’s this very strong sense of a moral obligation to do something. As a researcher, I can tell you why neither the U.S. nor NATO nor the EU will do what Ukraine actually needs in the short term. And that is incredibly frustrating on a personal level.

What do you think Europe, European countries, and the EU should be doing to help Ukraine?

Personally, I think it would have helped to fast track integration of Ukraine into Europe and potentially NATO much earlier, before the war started. It still would have been a highly risky move, but the hope would have been that Russia would be much less likely to invade a country that has NATO troops stationed. I believe it is crucially important for the West to supply Ukraine with military equipment and financial support, and to open up borders for refugees and to provide humanitarian support. It’s also important that they really move forward extremely rapidly on the oil and ban gas ban here in Europe.

How do you think the Russian invasion of Ukraine will affect academic study of international security and international relations?

I think there will be renewed interest in studying these issues. Much of the work has focused on domestic conflict and civil war, because of the decline in interstate conflicts. This [invasion] will probably lead to a renewed interest in studying big interstate conflicts. It will also lead to a much-needed focus on the international relations of authoritarian states, and how authoritarian states cooperate. That’s the big question right now about China and Russia, for example, and what implications that has for the West. And then finally, I would also like to see more on how these actions affect domestic politics, and especially the future of democracy, not only in Europe, but also beyond. Because we’ve seen states such as Russia become increasingly bold and aggressive. They have pushed back against democratization efforts quite successfully. And we see a decline around the world in the number of democracies and the number of stable democracies with consequences that will be far lasting. We need to understand what policies need to be implemented to protect against those changes.

And as we mentioned at the beginning of the interview, you are co-leading an initiative with IGCC that will coalesce and mobilize research across many different dimensions of democracy, governance, threats to democracy, inclusive representation, technology and democracy. We’re really excited to see how that initiative develops and brings together the incredible minds across the University of California. Listeners should stay tuned to that initiative as well. Christina, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us this morning.

Thank you so much.

The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.