May 9, 2022 - World

Europe is at a crossroads

Illustration of a crossroads sign with the EU circle of stars hanging from one of the directional arrows.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

French President Emmanuel Macron Monday admitted that Ukraine's accession to the European Union could take "several decades" as he proposed a new, multi-tiered framework for a "European political community."

The big picture: The Ukraine crisis has further exposed two key tensions at the heart of the European project: the ability of existing members like Hungary to undermine collective action; and the lack of a clear path to membership for other key members of the "European family," particularly Ukraine.

Why it matters: The EU is the world's biggest single market. With the stroke of a pen, the bloc could strangle the Russian economy by banning energy imports, or brighten Ukraine's economic future with the promise of membership.

  • But it's also a consensus-driven body of 27 members whose interests and values vary, even when war is raging next door.
  • The internal debate about how to use the bloc's considerable economic and diplomatic clout — both now over Ukraine, and longer-term in a world likely to be driven by U.S.-China competition — is very much live.

Driving the news: Macron, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, offered some answers to those existential questions in a keynote speech Monday at the conclusion of a special conference in Strasbourg.

  • Macron stated bluntly that Ukraine's application would require the EU to "lower the standards of membership." He stressed the need for partnerships with European neighbors beyond the typical years-long limbo for aspiring members, though he did not elaborate on what that "political community" would look like.
  • Now clearly the EU's senior statesman after his re-election, Macron wants to sideline the accession question and streamline decision-making within the EU as it exists.
  • Yes, but: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is far more bullish on Ukraine's future membership. She said Monday the Commission would deliver an "opinion" on the matter in June.

The more urgent threat to Macron's reform ambitions for the EU, as well as plans to ramp up pressure on Moscow, are differences between existing members.

  • Hungary has refused to vote for another sanctions package "until there is a solution" to its energy security — calling the EU's proposal to phase down Russian oil imports "an atomic bomb" for the Hungarian economy.
  • Von der Leyen traveled to Budapest on Monday in a bid to convince Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, viewed as the EU's most pro-Russian leader, to drop his veto threat.

Between the lines: The European Parliament has proposed an amendment to the bloc's founding treaties to eliminate the veto — and with it the need to repeatedly appease leaders like Orbán.

  • But 13 EU countries — most of them smaller members in eastern Europe — came out against those proposals Monday, saying "we already have a Europe that works."
  • The EU took major steps toward integration during the pandemic, most notably by issuing collective debt for the first time. But smaller states remain unwilling to simply let powers like France drive the agenda (much to Macron's chagrin).

What to watch: While Macron continues to emphasize the need for a "sovereign" Europe that doesn't rely on any other power, including the U.S., the war has underscored for some members the importance of the American security umbrella.

  • Two of the six EU members that aren't currently in NATO, Finland and Sweden, could announce their intentions to join the alliance within the next week. EU members on NATO's eastern flank have requested and received more U.S. support.

The bottom line: The EU that emerges from the Ukraine crisis will be different, but perhaps not as different as Macron would like.

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