A divided EU has demanded a role in next week’s negotiations with Russia over the Ukraine crisis and broader issues of European defense, after Vladimir Putin succeeded in sidelining the bloc in favor of talks with the US and NATO.
EU officials speaking to the Financial Times expressed frustration at the way negotiations in Geneva and Brussels were arranged – with Russian officials set to discuss the security of Ukraine and the whole European continent with counterparts from both Washington and the US-led military alliance. While US officials have remained in close contact with those in Brussels and in individual EU states, Washington has not sought to alter Moscow’s proposed negotiations.
Brussels “cannot be a neutral spectator in the negotiations” over Europe’s future security architecture, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday as he started a three-day visit to Ukraine.
The sidelining underscored Brussels’ lack of foreign policy clout amid divergent views on how to handle Russia and internal disagreements over the EU’s own security policy, EU officials said, pointing to the inability of its 27 members to agree on a long-planned statement of co-operation with NATO.
“This is not a theoretical exercise right now, it is about real threats,” a senior EU government minister said of the debate over co-operation with NATO. “In the current context, [the delay] exposes the divisions inside the union and makes us less able to respond to Russia as one. ”
Moscow, which has massed more than 100,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border, has issued a list of security demands to the west and threatened military action if they are ignored. They include NATO and the US not offering membership to Ukraine, and restricting the transatlantic alliance’s deployments in EU countries close to Russia.
While Brussels is overlooked, some member states have instead sought bilateral contacts with Russia. Germany and France have stepped up diplomatic efforts, with German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new foreign policy adviser Jens Plötner and his French counterpart Emmanuel Bonne traveling this week to Moscow for talks with senior Russian officials. The two will also meet Ukrainian officials this week for separate discussions.
But in a sign of the EU discord, Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, admitted last month that Europe had few ways to deter Russian action against Ukraine.
“The EU’s limited role in the discussion with Moscow is a natural reflection of its own lack of unity,” said Andrew Weiss, vice-president of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Moscow has literally zero interest in engaging with the EU as such.”
The Ukraine crisis has taken place as the EU debate about its role as a defense actor has intensified. Twenty-one of the EU’s 27 member states are also members of NATO, and many – particularly those in eastern Europe – see the transatlantic alliance as their primary protection against external threats such as Russia.
The Nato-EU statement, which is being drafted by Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, European Council president, has been billed by officials from both organizations as an uncontroversial update to previous Nato- EU declarations of co-operation signed in 2016 and 2018.
But it has become hostage to discussions inside the EU over more “strategic autonomy” in defense and security, an initiative pushed by a group of countries led by France that believe the bloc should rely less on NATO and develop some of its own independent defense capabilities .
Largely ceremonial, it was intended as a means to align shared objectives before the EU and NATO publish their own individual defense policies this summer that will outline strategies for the next decade.
Its delayed adoption undermined the EU’s ambitions to project itself as a security actor and weakened its demand to secure a seat at the negotiating table, bloc officials said.
National divergences over defense and security issues “inescapably harms the EU’s strategic direction and undercuts its ability to be treated as a serious player in a crisis where power politics are what really matters,” said Weiss.
While a majority of member states requested that the NATO co-operation declaration be agreed and signed last year, a final draft is only set to be circulated this month, bringing it under the purview of France’s six-month rotating presidency of the EU, which began on January 1.
The declaration could be signed in March, one EU official said. Defending the slower pace of drafting, the official said council president Michel must represent the opinions of all member states, including those that are not members of the military alliance, such as Austria and Cyprus. A spokesman for Michel declined to comment.
“A lot of it is about French control of the agenda when they have the presidency. There are elements they want in there, whether it’s primacy of the EU or strategic autonomy, ”said a second EU official briefed on the drafting process. “Delaying it creates an issue from something designed to eliminate issues,” said a third official.
French president Emmanuel Macron has made clear he wants to personally lead the process of reinforcing European sovereignty and defining the EU’s relationship with NATO during his country’s presidency of the bloc.
French officials believe that agreeing on the EU’s own defense and security policies should be prioritized before getting into the question of how it should co-operate with NATO. One French official told the FT the idea of an immediate EU-NATO joint declaration was a “secondary” matter.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin