By Sophie Boulter
The old adage “use it or lose it” is useful advice for students of foreign languages and retirees seeking to keep their minds sharp. It is also applicable to the European Union in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Europe is changing and becoming more unified in response to Russian aggression. It is up to Europe to use this opportunity to enact lasting change. A stronger Europe, improved through better security arrangements and social legislation, is within the EU’s grasp.
But this unity may not last. Europe must make the most of this moment, before the chance to improve is lost.
No Longer the EU Everyone Complains About
Critics have often accused the EU of being bureaucratic and out of touch with its citizens. The Russia-Ukraine War has jolted the EU into unified action.
The EU started drawing up legislation to sanction Russia before the eventual invasion, reacting to the Russian military buildup along the Russia-Ukraine border. Once the war began, the EU’s planning allowed the bloc to easily take assets from Russian oligarchs. The bloc also quickly banned Russian planes from EU airspace and banned Russian transactions from the SWIFT international payments system.
Challenging expectations, the EU reinforced its economic sanctions with military aid and arms to Ukraine. This move surprised many, especially those skeptical of the EU’s budding power in international security.
Prior to the conflict, many EU leaders treated notions of a robust European security presence as a ludicrous fantasy because it would distract from transatlantic security agreements like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Now, even these former skeptics are being convinced of the importance of a European security arrangement beyond NATO protection.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has shown the importance of unified security and socioeconomic policy strategies for the bloc. Falling within both realms is the matter of Ukrainian refugees.
Europe has come together in welcoming Ukrainian refugees, rather than letting refugees divide the continent as they did in 2015. The EU has offered these refugees housing rights, welfare rights and the right to stay in member states for up to three years. European countries have become united in providing a relatively “generous” welcome for Ukrainian refugees.
Even countries that opted out of the Schengen Area (a borderless travel era in the EU), such as Denmark and Ireland, are adopting accommodating policies towards refugees coming to their countries.
Hungary Doesn’t See This as a Good Thing
But this European unity is already fraying. Hungary has long been a foe of an integrated, liberal and democratic Europe while maintaining strong political ties to Russia. Hungarian media regularly broadcasts Russian propaganda and Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s reelection.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Hungary would oppose European unity in the face of Russian aggression.
Orbán has opposed EU sanctions against Russia and has forbidden EU arms shipments from moving through Hungary to Ukraine. He has described both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the EU as “opponents.”
Orbán has come out against a phased-in EU ban of Russian oil, too. He and his officials point to Hungary’s historical reliance on Russian energy as the motivation behind their opposition to the ban. Yet, the EU is also investigating Hungary for rule of law infringements and corruption. The European Commission (the EU’s executive branch) has denied Hungary funds earmarked for COVID-19 recovery due to corruption in the country.
In addition to its ties to Russia, some have speculated that Hungary’s opposition to EU involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war is partially motivated by Budapest’s frustration over being held to account for corruption.
Rather than allowing anti-democratic Hungary to destroy this moment of unity, EU countries need to isolate Hungary and stay united. Luckily, most European countries seem to be opposed to Hungary’s actions (for now).
Even Hungary’s illiberal ally in the EU, Poland, is critical of Hungary’s support of Russia. The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński, argued that if Orbán is unable to “see what happened in Bucha [Ukraine], he must be advised to see an eye doctor.”
While European unity is still strong, the EU should use this moment to pursue closer integration because this unity is far from assured. As Orbán continues to block EU actions against Russia, he further threatens the unique consensus struck in Europe.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko made it clear when he said that “if Hungary really wants to help end the war, here’s how to do it: stop destroying unity in the EU.”
What This Moment of Unity Should Be Used For
There are a number of reforms that are uniquely suited to this moment of European unity, but two are particularly important.
First, Europe needs to support its eastern flank. This includes giving Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine limited voting rights within the bloc, if not full membership. Carnegie Europe Fellow Judy Dempsey suggests giving these states special status and some voting rights within the EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC).
The process for EU membership is understandably complicated and careful, but something like voting rights is an important short term signal of EU support. Signaling support for Ukraine and other Baltic states is particularly important given Putin’s belief that these states, especially Ukraine, are part of Russia.
Second, the EU needs to identify and stop threats to its unity — including threats within its own borders. The bloc is in the process of strengthening mechanisms to stop Hungary from thwarting its policies against Russia. This process is not moving fast enough.
Withholding COVID-19 relief funds from Hungary was an important first step and the EU was right to do it, but this is insufficient on its own.
Rather, the EU needs to make lasting changes to ensure that antidemocratic forces do not flourish within its own borders. However, current voting mechanisms need to be changed first, because they require unanimity — which means that even one or two member states can stop reform in its tracks.
For example, Poland can veto any legislation or reform that critiques illiberal democracy in Hungary. Because Poland itself disregards the rule of law, it has an incentive to use its veto to protect Hungary from punishment in this area.
Luckily, Poland is siding with the rest of Europe against Russia (and Hungary, too). This is the perfect time to push for Poland to reform its illiberal tendencies, while also pushing it away from Hungary. With the Polish government divided internally but united against Russia, the EU should use this moment to both isolate Hungary and reform Poland.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has worked to bring Poland back to moderation from its right-wing extremism. Europe should work with him to bring reform to his country. It could help reform the rest of Europe as well.
Use It or Lose It
Neither of these reforms will be easy, nor can they be completed quickly. Progress towards these reforms must start now, while European capitals are receptive to acting together towards their common goal of stopping Russia.
This moment is finite and precarious, especially given Hungary’s opposition to European unity. If the EU does not use this opportunity, then it will lose it. Not only would this be a shame for Europe, but for the world that hopes for a stronger and more collaborative Europe that can better defend itself.
Sophie Boulter is a regular Review contributor and an incoming graduate student at the University of Cambridge. She graduated from Xavier University with degrees in Political Science and Philosophy.