by Gesine Weber, Research Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Paris
Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown that the transatlantic alliance can deliver on challenges in its neighbourhood. NATO has proven more united than ever, and has played a critical role in deterrence. While the US has shouldered most of the military aid, European governments have also significantly contributed to this effort through bilateral aid. The activation of the European Peace Facility for financing the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine and the launch of joint ammunition procurement have shown that the EU has a role to play as a security provider in its neighbourhood. Lastly, the EU has leveraged its entire toolkit, from budgetary instruments to sanctions and enlargement as a geopolitical tool, to support Ukraine – to an extent that the total support from Europeans to Ukraine today is even higher than the support provided by the US.
The coherence transatlantic partners have shown in their support to Ukraine, both in terms of messaging and concrete support, is remarkable. But as much recognition as this transatlantic effort deserves, it also requires thinking ahead for the next months and years. Most importantly, Europeans must prepare, mentally and through concrete steps, for a situation where they will have to shoulder the lion’s share of support for Ukraine.
Europe and US strategic interests
Regardless of the outcome of the US elections in November 2024, it is almost safe to say that Joe Biden was by far the most transatlantic president in the White House for the next de-
cade – and most likely the last “old school transatlanticist”. The reprioritisation of the European theatre was not foreseen in US strategy, which was already characterised by the “pivot to Asia” under President Obama. Reflections on the competition with China guide all aspects of US foreign (and domestic) policy, and Ukraine is no exception. The US sees the two strategic theatres – Ukraine and Taiwan – as closely linked, and commitment to supporting Ukraine therefore constitutes a national interest for the US as long as Russia’s war and agrressive behaviour continue. “China is watching” is a phrase that is often used in Washington in this regard. However, Europeans need to be aware that this re-engagement in Europe is therefore a strategic necessity for Washington and not a deliberate choice to strengthen ties with Europeans. In fact, Russia’s aggression also forced Europeans to finally implement what the US had been asking for a long time, namely significantly stepping up their defence capabilities to be able to respond to threats in their neighbourhood.
US elections – a catalyst for burden-shifting
The US elections in 2024 are likely to reinforce the structural trend of burden-shifting within the transatlantic partnership. In the best case scenario, the next US president will aim to do this in a coordinated manner, while ensuring smooth cooperation in NATO and the US’ contribution to collective defence and deterrence. In a worst case scenario, namely a “Trump bis”, Europeans might be forced to take over much of the burden of European defence against Russia sooner rather than later. This also includes military support to Ukraine, to which Republicans have already been growing more reluctant or partly even clearly oppose. Accordingly, working on US involvement in security guarantees for Ukraine, as well as sustainable military aid from the US for Ukraine, must be the European priorities on the road to NATO’s Washington summit next year.
Maintaining support in a deteriorating environment
However, Europeans must concretely prepare for a scenario where this US support to Ukraine, and hence a major contribution to European security, cannot be taken for granted. Ensuring European support for Ukraine therefore rightly ranks at the top of the EU’s to-do list in security and defence – even more so before the European Parliament elections in June. The most effective tool to do so would be a multiannual budgetary instrument, such as the €20bn support package for four years, proposed by EU High Representative Josep Borrell. Another option could be, for example, an additional inclusion of aid for Ukraine in national multi-annual defence budget planning – as done in France in 2023 – through funds that allow Ukraine to directly access arms from national defence industries.
Beyond the technicalities and political negotiations regarding the support for Ukraine, the political challenge for European governments, as well as the EU, consists in balancing attention to different security challenges and threats at its borders. Hamas’ attack on Israel and the resulting war between Israel and Hamas, as well as the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza, show that Europeans have to brace for situations where crisis-management in its south, including civilian or military missions, might become much more central. While the threat perceptions among EU Member States have strongly converged since Russia’s war against Ukraine, increasing volatility in the southern neighbourhood may lead to situations where perceptions and priorities start to diverge. Support to Ukraine will certainly remain a top priority on the political agendas of EU Member States that traditionally tend to look south, but given that political attention, as well as capabilities, are limited, Europeans would be well advised to engage in concrete reflections on their allocation.
Ukraine’s EU integration – a long-term challenge
While all eyes are today on concrete support for Ukraine’s efforts in countering Russia, the long-term challenge for Europeans is Ukraine’s integration in the EU. Even under a best case scenario, where the US contributes to security guarantees for Ukraine and Ukraine also becomes a member of NATO, the implications of this enlargement cannot be overestimated. The numbers speak for themselves: according to world bank estimates, the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction could amount to $411bn over ten years, and internal EU calculations estimate Ukraine’s EU accession to cost the bloc €186bn as reported by Politico and Financial Times.
However, the much more defining challenges for Europeans are directly linked to the future of Ukraine as a Member State, and require political imagination and intellectual flexibility. They are related to the protection of the EU’s future external borders, including the interpretation of article 42.7 of the EU treaty, often referred to as the “European solidarity clause”, the design of EU institutions for a better Union, as well as almost all internal policies. Albeit not yet visible, this is the actual lion’s share Europeans will have to shoulder in the next years and requires bold steps from today. These include strengthening the EU’s defence industrial capacities, continuous support for Ukraine’s EU integration process, continuously communicating to European citizens why all these efforts are critical investments in the future of Europe – and why they should take this into consideration when casting their ballot in next year’s European Parliament elections. ■
is a Research Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the Unites States (GMF). Based in Paris, she works on European security and defense issues. Prior to joining GMF, Ms Weber worked as a defense policy adviser in the German parliament and as a consultant for the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Shanghai. Ms Weber holds a master’s degree in European affairs (Sciences Po, Paris) and another in political science (Freie Universität Berlin). She is pursuing PhD research on European defense cooperation at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.