The week that changed Europe
Last week changed Europe. And to a great extent, it changed the world.
One week ago there was no war in Europe. By now, President Vladimir Putin’s army has closed in on Ukraine and the EU has launched a series of first-of-its-kind approaches – a barrage of economic sanctions, sending arms to a country at war, and opening its door to the thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine.
On Sunday, home affairs ministers across the EU discussed how to support the hundreds of thousands of citizens fleeing the war and arriving in Europe through the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson proposed giving automatic protection to Ukrainian refugees for at least three years without them having to formally apply for asylum. If approved when ministers reconvene on Thursday, it would be the first time in history that the EU triggers the temporary protection directive.
While Ukrainian refugees should of course be welcome in the European Union, this quick and unanimous move exposes the flaws of the bloc’s migration policy. When some countries floated the idea of granting the same rights to people fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban taking over the country last year, the decision did not fly.
One can argue whether the integration of citizens from one country or another might be more or less difficult, but from the Eurocrat’s perspective, the lives of human beings fleeing war should not have different values depending on where they come from.
Quick, determined reaction
For months, diplomats, commissioners, presidents and prime ministers said the EU was ready if Russia decided to invade Ukraine. They warned of “massive sanctions” and “unprecedented action” against the Kremlin. When the time came, Europe acted quickly, united and with determination.
Barely 24 hours after Putin recognised the Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, the first set of restrictive measures came in. Further measures were slapped just hours after the Russian army made its way into other areas of Ukraine, and again when an agreement with the US, Canada, UK and Japan was reached.
Europe has closed its air space to every plane owned or operated by Russians, including private jets, and it has banned state-owned media Russia Today and Sputnik from operating in the EU in an attempt to fight disinformation and propaganda.
Within seven days, the EU has moved from sticking to decades-old positions to breaking several of their best-known taboos.
If Putin thought he would break Ukrain’s spirit, he found himself confronted with a strong president in Volodymyr Zelenskyy and an army of citizens defending their country’s independence. If he thought he would break the EU’s unity, he found himself confronted with the most united action the EU has ever put forward.
The only strategic sector the EU and the rest of the Western allies have not yet touched is the gas and oil industry. Another outstanding taboo is the accession of Ukraine both to NATO and the EU - the pretexts Putin has used to invade the country although the process was far from progressing. Zelenskyy has openly asked for a clear path for his country to join the bloc arguing it will be the best way to show the Kremlin how serious Europe is about supporting his country.
Ukraine is "one of us and we want them in the European Union”, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview with Euronews on Sunday. However, an official step in that direction seems unlikely for now - but so were many of the decisions that were taken last week.
What the Eurocrat will be also watching:
The sanctions the EU has tabled can hurt Russia but they can also hurt Europe’s economy. The conflict is aggravating the energy price crisis that Europe has been going through for months. EU energy ministers will meet to assess the situation on Monday.
Ukrainian and Russian officials are set to meet on Monday for negotiations with “no preconditions”. Only time will tell whether anything tangible could come out of these talks.