The EU has also supported Ukraine but analysts say it is clear that the US has taken the lead.
ROME, Feb. 23 (Xinhua) — The conflict in Ukraine has brought the decades-old issue of the European Union’s (EU) strategic autonomy back into the spotlight, analysts say.
In many ways, the United States has been a leader in setting policies that have supported the Ukrainian cause, with European countries largely following in its footsteps.
Ukraine has also received strong support from the EU. But analysts say it’s clear the United States has taken the lead.
“The powers the EU has in terms of foreign policy and security policy are very limited compared to the powers the EU has in other policy areas,” Mattia Guidi, a political scientist at Rome’s LUISS University, told Xinhua.
He says there are several reasons for that, including the depth of US influence and how geopolitical issues are decided in Europe.
“The EU takes decisions based on a unanimity rule, which means it is necessary to put all 27 member states around a table and find a solution that suits everyone,” Guidi said. “It is very difficult. What usually happens is that with foreign and security policy, the European Union cannot decide on anything substantial.”
Such was the case earlier this month, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with European leaders in Brussels for the February 9 European Council summit.
There was consensus on pledging continued support to Ukraine, but major differences remained on what that meant: some countries wanted to support Ukraine in possible peace talks, some wanted to limit support to financial mechanisms, and others wanted to continue with military support.
There was also criticism from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni that the trilateral talks between Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris a day before the summit were “inappropriate” given the principle of unanimity, Guidi said.
Analysts say these issues have increased the influence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is now the main support framework for Ukraine, and one that had already begun supporting Kiev several years before the conflict broke out.
With a large-scale conflict on its doorstep, the EU’s capacity is limited in how it could respond. At the same time, NATO has increased its military presence on its eastern flank. Its regular meeting of defense ministers and the larger Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which meets at the US airbase in Ramstein, rather than the EU’s Council of Foreign and Defense Ministers, now make decisions on the conflict.
“NATO is already there. It is a more functional organization to deal with these issues, and that is where, of course, the United States plays a central role,” Guidi said. “It is also easy for this shift to happen because there is so much overlap between NATO and the EU.”
NATO has 30 member states, of which 21 are EU members. Two more EU member states, Sweden and Finland, are in the process of joining NATO, while several NATO member states outside the EU are seeking EU membership.
According to Ingo Peters, a foreign policy expert at the Free University of Berlin, the issue of the EU’s strategic autonomy is one that has often surfaced in the past, since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
“Europe’s strategic autonomy has already been enjoyed by some, but not by all,” Peters, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at the US University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Xinhua.
“Germany, for example, has always said that the EU should not move forward without the United States, which it has said is essential to strengthening the European Union,” Peters said.
Germany has reportedly agreed to send advanced Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in late January only after the US decided to send M1 Abrams tanks.
“There are historical reasons for this, because we Germans believe that there is a need for US influence in Europe as a kind of external balance to keep our friends and neighbors calm,” Peters said.
Germany is the EU’s largest economy, but Peters noted that it has not always been a major player in matters of international relations and security, partly because of its legacy from the 20th century’s two world wars. But that has begun to develop in the year since the Ukraine conflict began, Peters said.
“In recent months, Europe’s strategic autonomy has received a reality check,” said Ulrike Franke, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Europe must become stronger and more united, less immediately dependent on a US that is less and less keen to focus its efforts, attention and money on Europe,” Franke said.