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The five major taboos the European Union dared to break throughout one year of war in Ukraine

Russia's war in Ukraine has forced the EU to reconsider many of its policies, such as asylum and enlargment.
Russia's war in Ukraine has forced the EU to reconsider many of its policies, such as asylum and enlargment. Copyright Adam Schreck/AP
Copyright Adam Schreck/AP
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has taken decisions that were once considered off-limits.

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The European Union was first created to stop wars from devastating the continent and brought decades of relative peace.

But Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 brought a reckoning in Brussels that challenged long-held beliefs and sparked discussions once considered off-limits.

Here are the five major taboos the European Union dared to break in one year of war.

The weapons taboo

In the years following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, military spending across Europe plunged as political priorities shifted elsewhere and the public forgot the looming threat of a nuclear Armageddon.

By the early 2020s, most European countries were conspicuously below the NATO target that compels them to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, much to the dismay of the White House. Proposals to set up a shared EU army remained strictly abstract, finding greater space in think tanks rather than ministerial meetings.

But the utter shock and horror of Russian tankers breaking through Ukraine's borders opened a window of opportunity that had for years stayed shut: three days after the Kremlin launched the invasion, the bloc decided to finance the purchase and delivery of lethal equipment to a country under attack.

For the very first time ever, EU funds from EU taxpayers were going to pay for weapons.

"This is a watershed moment," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared then.

The bloc tapped into the European Peace Facility (EPF), a nascent off-budget instrument, to reimburse the costs of the military aid and operational support that each capital pledges to Ukraine.

In twelve months of war, member states have injected €3.6 billion into the EPF. In another precedent-setting move, they established a military assistance mission to train Ukrainian soldiers on EU soil. Overall, military assistance provided by EU member states is estimated at around €12 billion.

Still, the EU's military aid pales in comparison to the more than $44 billion that the United States has so far committed to Kyiv.

The dependence taboo

The day Vladimir Putin launched the invasion, exports of fossil fuels were responsible for supplying 40% of Russia's federal budget revenue.

The stats forced Brussels to uncover what had long been swept under the carpet: an entrenched, costly dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal.

In 2021, the EU had spent €71 billion buying Russian crude oil and refined products. On gas, the reliance on Russia was estimated at 40% of all exports, with a handful of countries in the East exceeding the 90% rate.

The addiction to Russian fuels was so deep and intense that in December 2021, as Russia continued to pile up troops along the Ukrainian border for all to see, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was still defending the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a private, commercial project.

It wasn't until bombs started to fall on Kyiv that the status quo was deemed untenable and the need to break free from this dependence became a number one political priority.

The EU then entered a race against the clock to diversify its energy mix. Russian coal was swiftly banned, Russian oil was gradually phased out and Russian gas was replaced by either Norwegian pipelines or LNG vessels from the US, Qatar, Nigeria and Algeria.

In parallel, the European Commission drafted ambitious plans to turbocharge the deployment of renewables and promote power savings.

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The switch came with an enormous price tag and accusations the rich bloc was squeezing developing countries out of the competitive LNG market.

As of today, the EU imports over 12% of the gas it needs from Russia.

The confiscation taboo

Since 24 February, the EU and its allies have slapped Russia with an ever-expanding list of international sanctions aimed at crippling the Kremlin's ability to finance its war machine.

Many of these sanctions have been of a radical, unheard-off nature, such as the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil, estimated to be costing the Kremlin over €160 million per day.

One specific move, though, was particularly bold: the West imposed a total prohibition on all transactions with the Russian Central Bank, effectively freezing half of its $643 billion in foreign reserves.

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The EU is now ready to go deeper into uncharted territory with a plan to invest these frozen reserves and re-direct the yearly proceedings into the reconstruction of Ukraine.

The idea is without precedent and has been described as "legally dodgy" and "deeply problematic" by legal experts because the currency reserves are state assets and enjoy special protection under international law that all countries are expected to respect.

But Brussels insists there is still a way to pave a legal avenue, even if narrow, and turn the frozen reserves into a reliable money-making scheme.

"Russia must pay for the destruction caused and for the blood spilled," von der Leyen has said.

At the same time, the bloc is working on plans to confiscate the private assets seized from Russian oligarchs, such as yachts, mansions and paintings, and sell them to raise additional funds for Ukraine.

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The asylum taboo

To say migration policy is the mother of all EU controversies would be an understatement.

Although the 2015 migration crisis is long gone, its spirit keeps haunting policy-makers and diplomats in Brussels. Despite several attempts to unify migration and asylum policy among the 27 member states, the goal remains too intractable and explosive to find common ground.

But when scores of Ukrainians began fleeing the Russian onslaught, the EU discovered the tried-and-tested textbook of past migration crises was going to fall flat on its face.

Desperately searching for a practical solution, the bloc dusted off the Temporary Protection Directive, an obscure law dating back to 2001 that had never been used.

Under the directive, member states are allowed to grant immediate and extraordinary protection to a selected group of displaced people, in this case, Ukrainian refugees.

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The law bypasses the traditionally overburdened asylum systems and offers instead a simplified, fast-tracked path to access residence permits, education, healthcare, social welfare and the labour market – the basic conditions Ukrainians need to start a new life.

The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive on 3 March was hailed as "historic" but also criticised by some activists and organisations for exposing the racial bias inherent in the EU migration policy.

As of today, four million Ukrainian refugees have been re-settled across the bloc, with Poland and Germany hosting around one million each.

Michal Dyjuk/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Under the Temporary Protection Directive, the EU has welcomed around four million Ukrainian refugees.Michal Dyjuk/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

The enlargement taboo

After the entrance of Croatia in 2013, the appetite for expanding the bloc beyond 27 members became palpably poor. Von der Leyen pledged to bring enlargement back to the fore when she arrived at the Commission, only to be side-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russia's war, however, turned the tables around and provided Brussels with the political argument it had lacked to justify enlargement: unity in the face of aggression.

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President Volodymr Zelenskyy of Ukraine quickly seized the momentum and signed his country's application to join the bloc four days after Putin ordered the invasion, a time when many in the West thought Kyiv would soon fold.

Thanks to a dogged PR campaign by Zelenskyy and his officials, Ukraine's bid went from unrealistic to feasible in the span of four months, during which EU members had a staggered change of heart and publicly dared to speak of enlargement after years of a dormant debate.

The impetus peaked on 23 June, when the European Council unanimously granted Ukraine – and also Moldova – the coveted status of candidate country, the official preamble to accession talks.

The taboos waiting to be broken

Despite the resolute decision-making seen in the last 12 months, the EU is yet to break some notable taboos, such as sanctions on Russia's nuclear sector due to safety concerns from some Eastern European countries.  

Also still off the table are an import ban on Russian diamonds given Belgium's economic stakes in the diamond district of Antwerp, and the expulsion of Gazprombank, the Russian bank that handles energy payments, from the high-security SWIFT system.

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