Brexit, CFSP and the Ukrainian crisis: what impact on the European Union’s resilience?

By Gilles Lelong

Gilles Lelong is a former ENA student and French public servant, currently living in Ukraine. Gilles Lelong taught International and European Law at Sciences Po Paris from 2012 to 2014. He explains how Brexit compounds the EU’s vulnerability on its Eastern flank, and what should be done in order to present a united front to a challenging Russia.

With the referendum that took place on June 23, 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lost a key partner and ally in the management of the Ukrainian crisis, in which she is playing a leading role. Although the United Kingdom (UK) does not partake in the Normandy format1, and even though it did not participate either in the negotiations eventually leading to the Minsk Agreement2 on February 12, 2015, London has nevertheless played a crucial role in the adoption and continuation of the regime of sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Let us not forget that this regime was decided and implemented on the basis of a CFSP/CSDP3 legal framework, approved and even partially sponsored by the UK. Furthermore, the UK has shown substantial involvement both quantitatively and qualitatively in the activities of the OSCE’s special observation mission deployed all across Ukraine for the period from April 2014 to March 2017. UK exit from the EU is also impacting a certain perception of European values and of the EU’s external role, combining views to enlargement and geopolitical stabilization.

The Brexit is weakening Angela Merkel’s position with regards to her relationship to her coalition partner, the SPD, which, with respect to the German national tradition of “Ostpolitik” and like a sizeable part of the French and Italian political class, is in favour of alleviating the package of sanctions imposed on Russia in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. This second sanction package, distinct from the one adopted as a result of the illegal annexation of Crimea, has not resolved the conflict. Nevertheless, it did contribute in stabilizing the frontline in the Donbas, and prevented tensions to be diffused into other regions as well, such as in Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye and Odessa. Above all, this second round of sanctions is a crucial leverage being used by the West in the talks with Moscow towards a negotiated, peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Beyond the Ukraine situation, and as the revisionist policy led by the current Russian government primarily targets the EU, certain reactions to the Brexit observed both in Paris and Berlin seem to concur with some of the objectives the Kremlin has assigned to its “hybrid” interventions in Europe. In fact, populist parties are already calling for similar referendums to be held in Europe, while at the same time advocating the re-nationalization of a number of common policies. In France, some of those in favour of an EU with 6 or 27 members are fiercely opposed to a new EU enlargement, demand a pause in the integration process and clearly prefer the intergovernmental approach to a supranational method. This conveniently matches the preferences displayed on a daily basis by Russian media, which encourage European sovereignism, a European project based on the primacy of nation states over citizens – whose vulnerabilities, divides and inconsistencies the Kremlin is very quick, and keen, to exploit for its own benefit.

In fact, by destabilising Kyiv, Moscow is actually seeking to destabilize the EU, perceived by Vladimir Putin’s regime, at best as a rival fighting over an area it still conceives as pertaining to its “near abroad”; at worst, as an existential menace threatening its very survival. One of the dangerous consequences of the Brexit is the additional, unwanted exposure of the EU on its Eastern flank. Indeed, one can’t help but worry that the EU, now deemed to focus on internal issues – mainly the practical terms of its divorce with the UK – would become less committed to its external role in geopolitical stabilization.

Yet the Ukrainian conflict is far from being resolved. Violations of the cease-fire are observed on a daily basis by the OSCE, sometimes in significant numbers. Ukrainian military losses are still being reported4. Moscow is pursuing politically destabilizing actions all across the country by promoting, with the help of its relays in Kyiv– notably amongst the former party of the regions, close to former President Yanukovitch5 – a very extensive understanding of the implementation of the Minsk agreements, while the EU has trouble clarifying its own strategic choices. On the one hand, the EU endeavours to promote reforms bringing Ukraine closer to European technical and democratic standards, hereby committing to support a younger generation of reformers often overly critical of the political component in the Minsk Agreements. On the other hand, the EU is pressuring Kyiv and pushing for a comprehensive implementation of Minsk, which would mean that representatives of the old system, whose hostility towards reforms is notorious, have to be somehow “resuscitated”.

As a result of the trauma generated by the Brexit, should the EU appear to disengage from the conflict in Ukraine, hereby conceding a political victory to the Kremlin, it seems rather likely to see the latter tempted to try and challenge the EU as well as NATO elsewhere. Even without the UK, and no matter how flexible, an EU-27 cannot afford not to pay attention to its eastern neighborhood. One way to win the upper hand again would be to clearly define, once and for all, a geopolitical status for Ukraine. At each of the three electoral consultations in 2014 and 2015, a majority of Ukrainians expressed their desire for a rapprochement with the EU, whereas support for the Customs Union, in fact ruled by Moscow, remains largely minoritarian. Ignoring that fact would mean for the EU to deny its own values. Closing the European horizon for those who paid a substantial price to access it would challenge a vision of an international order based on the primacy of law and the refusal of a logic based on considerations over areas of influence. The implementation of the Association Agreement that the EU signed with Kyiv in June 2014, as well as the European Commission’s propositions on the creation of a visa-free space, thus remains of the highest importance.

Finally, while the political and economic pressures are strengthening in view of having the sanctions against Russia lifted by January 2017, both Europeans and Americans must continue to reassert the consequential link between these very sanctions and the compliance with the cease-fire agreements. Preserving an indispensable transatlantic solidarity when addressing the strategic challenge posed by Russia is no less than essential. Such a solidarity-based relationship would ideally require the UK to associate with the CFSP/CSDP procedures, or at the very least, the search for coordination between European and British actions, notably within the Atlantic Alliance, the G7 and the OSCE Permanent Council.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect WeBuildEurope.eu’s position.

Photo credit: independent.co.uk


1. [Diplomatic group gathering Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, implemented on June 6, 2014 for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the American Normandy landing in view of contributing to the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict. ]

2. [Package of measures adopted in Minsk on February 12, 2015 within the framework of the Normandy format and aiming at warrantying the implementation of a cease-fire in East Ukraine, restoring Ukrainian control over its international border with Russia, and promoting a political solution to the conflict (notably through the organization of local elections, the establishment of a special status for the related territories as well as by resuming Ukrainian social payments to the benefit of the people living in these areas).
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3. [Common Foreign and Security Policy/Common Security and Defence Policy.]

4. [About 10,000 people died since summer 2014 as a result of the conflict.
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5. [A number of politicians from the opposition bloc (former party of the regions) or those with close ties to the former Yanukovitch Government are notably believed to be in favor of an extension of the special status, granted originally to certain territories in the Donbass by the Minsk Agreements, to other regions in Ukraine.
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