Analysis: In just one week, the EU has changed forever

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By Jorge Liboreiro
The EU has seen the most dramatic changes of its history in the span of seven days.
The EU has seen the most dramatic changes of its history in the span of seven days.   -   Copyright  Johanna Geron/AP

"Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises," wrote French diplomat Jean Monnet in his memoirs, published in 1976.

Time and again, Monnet's words have proved to be an extraordinarily prescient warning: from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Great Recession, from Brexit to the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union appears to have developed a unique ability to grow stronger exclusively in the face of adverse, unforeseen circumstances.

But it wasn't until the last week of February 2022 that Monnet's self-realised prophecy gained a new meaning, one that would have been unthinkable as recently as one month ago.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has injected the EU with the overdue resolve it needed to truly face up to the adverse geopolitics of its surroundings, brushing aside any remaining taboos and prejudices.

In the span of seven days, the bloc has managed to move past its drawn-out internal squabbles, its notoriously convoluted bureaucracy and its international reputation for caution and moderation, and has instead demonstrated the self-confidence and boldness that its critics claimed it lacked.

Decisions of enormous consequence have been taken at record speed with ironclad unity, even if some of the sanctions slapped on Russia will inevitably ricochet and damage the bloc's own economy, still reeling from the COVID-19 upheaval.

For the first time in its history, the bloc will finance the purchase of lethal weapons for countries that are under attack, a quantum leap for a union that was originally created to defend peace. Germany will too contribute: the country has reversed its historic policy and will now send weapons to conflict zones.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in history," said Chancellor Olaf Scholz. "It threatens our entire post-war order."

Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war are being welcomed with open arms by the same member states that have spent the last seven years bickering about a common migration policy based on shared solidarity.

Propaganda tools are being shut down, financial assets worth billions are being frozen and planes are forbidden to fly over EU territory, effectively blocking Russia from physically entering the West.

Even a far-fetched Ukrainian bid for EU membership now seems to be a realistic goal within reach.

Business as usual no longer applies in wartime.

'A critical moment'

The speed of the transformation has been, to say the least, astonishing.

It all began on Monday, 21 February, when Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry Dmytro Kuleba travelled to Brussels in a desperate bid to ask his European counterparts to slap pre-emptive sanctions on Russia before Putin gave the order to invade the country with his more than 150,000 troops.

Kuleba's call for action fell on deaf ears. "We will continue supporting Ukraine at the most critical moment – if this happens," said Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief.

That very same evening, that "critical moment" came to pass: as EU ministers concluded their meeting and reaffirmed their wait-and-see approach, Putin recognised the independence of two rebel-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, putting an immediate end to the Minsk agreements.

International condemnation quickly followed and fears of an impending invasion dramatically increased.

The next day, Borrell struck a markedly different note: the diplomat put forward a set of sanctions against 27 individuals and entities of Putin's inner circle, including his defence minister and his chief of staff, together with the 351 members of the State Duma who voted to recognise the self-proclaimed people's republics. Financial and trade penalties were also introduced.

"The grave violations that Russia is committing will not go unanswered," Borrell told reporters.

That same day, Olaf Scholz took the step to indefinitely suspend the certification of Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline that connects Russia and Germany and had become a great point of contention between Berlin and its allies

Scholz, like Angela Merkel, had for years defended the conduit as a "commercial project," detached from geopolitics, a naïve assessment that Putin's continued provocations rendered simply untenable.

As Russian troops entered the Donbas, Western countries threatened with further retaliatory measures, which were alternatively described as "massive", "unprecedented", "never seen before" and even "the mother of all sanctions," leaving journalists to wonder what else could be in store.

On Thursday morning, Europe woke up to the greatest military attack since World War II. History irreversibly changed – and so did the EU.

'Talking is cheap'

That fateful day, 24 February, was a day of shock, confusion, outrage and sorrow. But among the horror, a renewed resolve emerged.

Mindful of the unprecedented situation unfolding right next to the EU's border, leaders shunned their usual "seriously concerned" statements and began embracing a more assertive, almost belligerent rhetoric.

"We will not allow President Putin to replace the rule of law with the rule of force and ruthlessness," said von der Leyen.

"This is not only against Ukraine, this is a war against Europe, against democracy," declared Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda.

"Talking is cheap. Enough of cheap talking," said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

That same evening, leaders flew to Brussels to gather in an emergency summit, where they agreed to impose another set of sanctions, the second in barely 48 hours.

The expanded penalties directly targeted Russia's financial, energy and transport sectors, tightened exports controls and limited visa issuance. Put together, the measures aimed at crippling 70% of Russia's banking system in order to cut off the funds needed to bankroll the invasion.

The drastic move, however, was quickly eclipsed by the grave developments on the ground. Russian troops started encircling Kyiv, putting the democratically-elected government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at risk of being toppled overnight.

On Friday, mere hours after leaders avoided punishing Putin personally or expelling Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, ministers did exactly that. Putin's assets were frozen and the SWIFT option came back to the table, as countries like Italy, Hungary and Germany, which were previously opposed to such extreme measure, voiced a sudden change of mind.

'One of us'

The momentum coalesced on Saturday night, when President von der Leyen addressed the press at 23:00 CET to announce a third set of sanctions, in coordination with the US, the UK and Canada.

The measures will remove some Russian banks from SWIFT, block the Russian Central Bank from using most of its $630 billion in foreign reserves, and end the sale of golden passports, a contentious privilege that Russian oligarchs have freely enjoyed to do business across the bloc.

"We will make it as difficult as possible for the Kremlin to pursue its aggressive policies," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

On Sunday, a new raft of measures, the fourth in less than a week: the EU will send lethal weapons to Ukraine, ban Russian planes from its airspace and remove RT and Sputnik from its airwaves. Belarus, a country seen as an enabler in Putin's act of war, will also be penalised.

Von der Leyen later amped the ante when she told Euronews that Ukraine was "one of us and we want them in," seemingly backing the EU membership bid that President Zelenskyy has publicly campaigned for.

The Commission chief's endorsement capped a week of momentous decisions: until recently, Ukraine's realistic chances of joining the bloc were lower than those of Serbia and Turkey, two countries that, despite its fraught relations with Brussels, are still considered official "candidates".

Regardless of the direction the war goes, the succession of such far-reaching changes and decisions in seven days are set to leave a lasting impact on the EU as a whole and, particularly, on its foreign policy.

The indulgence and complacency that characterised prosperous times and swept problems under the rug are over. Russia will simultaneously be a pariah state under crippling sanctions and the bloc's largest energy exporter, at least for the foreseeable future.

The EU that deals with this precarious reality will be more hard-nosed, cynical and self-assured, mindful of the limits of diplomacy and the allure of hard power. A union built on ideals bound to live in a cruel world.