The European Union’s goal of being more ‘geopolitical’, first declared by then European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen in November 2019 and repeated several times since, remains far from being fulfilled. EU support for Ukraine is the best, though not the only, example of this failure.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has become the most serious challenge to European security and stability since the Second World War. Initially, there was a robust consensus among European Union countries that the victim of aggression should be supported, though countries offered different magnitudes and forms of support.
Unfortunately, this consensus began to erode in 2023 under the pressure of various business lobbies. It started with disputes around imports of Ukrainian grain to EU frontier states. From mid-November 2023, Polish transportation firms started blockading the Polish-Ukrainian border, demanding the reintroduction of licences for Ukrainian truckers.
However, these were relatively minor conflicts compared to the failure of EU member-state governments to approve inclusion of a €50 billion Ukrainian Facility package in the EU’s 2021-2027 budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The proposed package was seen as the continuation of the EU financial support for Ukraine granted in 2022-2023.
Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, blocked the plan, which required unanimity of member-state governments. A parallel decision to open EU accession negotiations with Ukraine could be adopted only after Orban abstained (for not blocking the decision, he managed to extract a substantial financial concession from the European Commission).
On 1 February 2024, EU countries will try again to approve MFF changes. There are two possible plan Bs to overcome the Hungarian veto. First, a dedicated aid fund could be created by the other 26 member states via an intergovernmental treaty. A second solution, suggested by the Hungarian government, would be splitting of the €50 billion package into four annual tranches. Releasing each tranche would require a unanimous decision of member states.
Both variants are worse than the initial proposal. Establishing a separate, formally off-EU, fund will require financial contributions from member states and ratification procedures in national parliaments. Splitting a package into tranches will provide Hungary and potentially other EU countries with opportunities for political bargaining over releasing each portion of financial aid. Both options would signal the EU’s decision-making difficulties in supporting Ukraine.
Difficulties in providing EU financial aid to Ukraine come at a critical moment in its almost two-year struggle against aggression. The war has exhausted the country’s material and human resources; the damage toll increases every day. The EU’s failure to approve the aid package coincides with similar difficulties in the US Congress. As a result, the support from the two critical Ukrainian allies has become bogged down. On the other hand, the financial aid provided in the second half of 2022 and 2023 helped ensure the Ukrainian economy’s relative macroeconomic stability and moderate recovery.
What should EU countries do to deliver on the aid promise for Ukraine and avoid similar failures in the future? In the short term, the only way is an intra-EU diplomatic effort, even at the cost of bad compromises. However, in the long term, this and other similar past experiences (for example, the failure for almost 15 years to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia) underline the necessity of changing the EU’s decision-making mechanism. The requirement for unanimity should be replaced, at least partly, by qualified majority voting at least in three policy areas: common foreign and security policy, EU enlargement and the MFF.
There are two ways to achieve this goal: activating the passerelle (bridging) clauses in the EU Treaties – which allow qualified majority voting in certain policy areas on the basis of a unanimous decision of the European Council – or changing the Treaties. The first is politically and legally more accessible but limited in scope. For example, it cannot apply to enlargement decisions. Regarding the second avenue, the resolution of the European Parliament of 22 November 2023, containing 245 proposed Treaty amendments, many of them reducing national veto powers, should serve as the starting point for negotiating Treaty change.
Moving away from unanimity, though politically challenging, would be a critical step to strengthen the role of the EU as a geopolitical actor and to enable future EU enlargement.
The author would like to thank Heather Grabbe, Ivo Maes, Scott Marcus, Francesco Nicoli, Armin Steinbach and Nicolas Véron for their comments and suggestions on a draft of this commentary.