Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken traditional alliances within the European Union, and the partners are forging ties that go beyond the usual north-south and east-west geographic divide. The 27 have managed to maintain unity against Russia and approve up to six batteries of sanctions against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The change of era that marks the conflict has led to a reconfiguration of the positions of each partner, which have begun to align in relation to the degree of hardness towards Moscow and the extent of support for the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Experts believe that some of the strongest coalitions so far have been almost irreparably damaged by Putin’s war. And they predict a Union with more circumstantial and unstable alliances.
The most damaged group is the powerful and until recently eurosceptic Visegrad bloc (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), stressed to the point of rupture by the resentment of the Polish government towards a Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, closely linked to Putin. Also in question, at least temporarily, is the so-called Weimar triangle (Berlin, Paris and Warsaw) due to the Franco-German effort to offer Putin a dignified way out if he ends the war.
And among the founding partners (Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux) there are clear differences on the most thorny issues of the moment, such as the alignment with a very belligerent United States against Putin, the convenience or not of prolonging the war until the collapse of Russia or the recognition of Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership.
“I think that in the coming months and years we will see more and more alliances built for each issue, as we learn to live with realities and tensions within an expanded union”, predicts Susi Dennison, director of the European Power program in the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“The war in Ukraine opens, at the same time, a nationalist and a pro-European moment. Russian aggression forces countries like Poland to rediscover the importance of the EU, but, at the same time, governments are going to worry about defending their national interests”, adds Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, president of the Center for Liberal Strategies.
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The 27 have managed to maintain unity against Russia and approve up to six batteries of sanctions against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Dennison believes that the unity shown by the EU against Russia could begin to crack due to the boomerang effect of sanctions, especially energy sanctions, on European economies. “This is not just about the division caused by energy prices or refugees, but about a greater gap between those who want peace as soon as possible and those who want to see Russia defeated,” says the ECFR researcher.
Every telephone conversation between French President Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin provokes angry protests from Poland and the Baltic countries, who accuse Paris of collusion with the Kremlin. And the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is also in the crosshairs of those who rule out any understanding with Moscow while the current regime remains in power.
“If we don’t keep up the pressure on Russia, security in Europe cannot be guaranteed,” defended the Prime Minister of Latvia, Krisjanis Karins, during an interview with EL PAÍS. The Latvian, like the rest of the toughest bloc, believes that “peace can only be achieved through the victory” of Ukraine over Russia. Dennison warns that “if in the first phase of the war we saw a Europe united with its Eastern partners, in the next phase we could see a Europe that is struggling to stay united, with Poland and the Eastern countries isolated”.
The fissures within the club no longer seem to follow a geographic or ideological pattern. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is emerging as ostracized even among his former peers, especially after the changes of government in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “This group is very sick or broken. Hungary has become a toxic country. Slovakia has a very good image and the new government of the Czech Republic is seeking to recover it”, community sources very aware of what is happening in these four countries analyze in Brussels. Almost the same expression used from Sofía Krastev: “There is no longer V4 [en referencia al cuarteto]. There is V2 plus one, plus one. Hungary is toxic for Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland does not like Orbán’s policy with Russia, but they are still allies in the confrontation with Brussels.”
The more Europeanist orientation of Prague and Bratislava, added to the clear clash between Warsaw and Budapest over the relationship with Russia, have dismantled the Visegrad group. It still exists formally. Slovak diplomatic sources tacitly assume the great differences on the issue that now galvanizes almost all EU activity, Putin’s war, but stress that there are still common interests in the quartet for which it is in their best interest to work together: infrastructure, transport and migration. .
The differences are also evident, although not as profound, in other groups. In the Benelux, for example, Belgium and Luxembourg have been enthusiastic about Ukraine’s bid for EU membership, while the Netherlands only accepts it grudgingly and fraught with strings attached. The Franco-German axis is not experiencing its best moment either, with Scholz and Macron seeking to recover the harmony that had been achieved during the last years of Angela Merkel in the Chancellery.
Analysts believe that all these adjustments provide the opportunity for other partners to gain weight and to seek pragmatic alliances in very specific areas. Dennison believes, for example, that “Spain can play a crucial role in helping Europe move towards a broader definition of energy security, incorporating clean sources.” The researcher points out that Spain can exercise power in an energy transition that “will be absolutely vital to preserve action in the climate field and to be able to maintain a firm position against Russia as dependence on it is reduced.”
For Krastev, the weakening of the Franco-German axis and the increasing protagonism of the Eastern countries gives countries like Italy and Spain an opportunity to play an important role.
The first, of course, is already playing it or, at least, trying to. The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, takes advantage of all his prestige to increase the role of his country. The photo from last week in which he went to kyiv with Macron and Scholz is very powerful. It remains to be seen if next year’s elections and the predicted thrust of Eurosceptic options do not lead Rome to lose its footing.
The future of new pragmatic alliances and ad hoc it could be consolidated or dissolved during the brewing debate on the institutional reforms that the EU will undertake in the post-war period. After the conclusion on May 9 of the Conference on the future of Europe, the countries have already begun to line up around the need or not to reform the Treaties. The founding members plus Spain or Slovakia are clearly in favor of the change, while another thirteen Member States, from Northern and Eastern Europe, are already have shown their resistance.
On the table is also the french proposal to create a new European political Confederation that allows the entire continent to be integrated into concentric circles of cooperation with the EU as its axis. Paris fights so that Ukraine and Moldova, which at the European summit next week hope to obtain the status of candidates for entry into the EU, offer to launch a Confederation that, in their case, could be the comfortable prelude to accession uncertain and very long term. But it is also a way out for countries that have been pounding on the door of Brussels for years and that find it very difficult to open it wide. As Krastev foresees, these candidates will continue to encounter this resistance unless the reform of the Treaties is put in place and the veto capacity of a single country on issues such as fiscal policy or Foreign Affairs is eliminated.
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