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Reflections on EU-Ukraine relations symposium | “From a Ukrainian perspective, Trump is already in power”

14 March 2024

This text was originally published by Raam op Rusland.

‘What is Europe willing to do to protect its own security and defence?’ It was the opening question of former top diplomat François Heisbourg at a REKA Symposium on EU–Ukraine relations in The Hague on March 4, organised by Raam op Rusland, Open Door Ukraine and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. According to Heisbourg, who is currently a senior advisor for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Europe is facing the ‘only imperial project left’ on the continent but is still guided by fear of escalation. Meanwhile, ‘the United States is currently not providing any military aid to Ukraine. From a Ukrainian point of view, Trump is already in power.’

REKA symposium 1 Heisbourg

Geopolitical panel discussion with François Heisbourg, Justyna Gotkowska, Joanneke Balfoort, Dick Berlijn, and moderator Rem Korteweg. Photo: Eva Borsboom

Now that the European Council has green-lighted accession negotiations with Ukraine, the symposium in The Hague centred around the geopolitical and economic outlook of an enlarged European Union. In his geopolitical keynote speech before an audience of policymakers, experts, and politicians, Heisbourg painted a bleak picture of European security for the foreseeable future. ‘Europe’s defence spending and the 2% target are still based on the situation almost two decades ago, in the good old days when Russian military forces had not yet been modernised. 2% is yesterday’s number.’ Moreover, the EU is reliant on a United States whose unwavering support for European security cannot be taken for granted in light of the possible reelection of Donald Trump and the risk of China opening another global front in Taiwan. In the meantime, according to Heisbourg, Russia is shaping a war that it can sustain for years. ‘The war’s burden on Russia is comparable to that of the Algerian War on France, which lasted for years and only ended because of political will on the side of general De Gaulle.’

Heisbourg would not exclude the possibility of a ‘nightmare scenario’ in which Ukraine loses the war due to exhaustion of its army and inadequate support from the U.S. and Europe. The absence of an effective system of rotation for Ukraine’s armed forces could lead to a sudden collapse of its lines of defence. Without the U.S., Europe would be left to deal with the disruptive consequences of a Ukrainian defeat, which could lead to tensions within the EU and NATO. ‘It is imperative that Europe becomes aware of this danger and acts accordingly to avoid such a scenario.’

“Europe needs a long-term strategy of deterrence”

Heisbourg was joined in a geopolitical panel by Joanneke Balfoort, director Security & Defence at the European External Action Service, general (ret.) Dick Berlijn, former Chief of Defence of the Netherlands, and Justyna Gotkowska, deputy director at OSW Centre for Eastern Studies. All of them shared Heisbourg’s grim outlook for European security for the years to come. General Berlijn pointed out that Europe has failed to take the initiative on the continent: ‘If you don’t want war, prepare for war.’ While supporting Ukraine should be the main short-term strategy, Europe also needs unity and a long-term deterrence strategy towards Russia. ‘Otherwise the war will be at our doorstep at some point,’ said Berlijn.

EU leaders often claim that they stand by Ukraine whatever it takes and as long as it takes, but Justyna Gotkowska argued that the European strategy has been guided by fear of escalation and spillover, rather than by a Ukrainian victory. ‘Europe’s strategy has been based on the false premise that Putin will sooner or later be tired of war, and while Western Europeans do not believe that a Ukrainian defeat is a threat to Europe’s security, the debate in Poland and the Baltics focusses on when the war will come to us and how we can defend ourselves.’

How, then, can the EU and Ukraine develop a long-term security strategy for the European continent? The first ever European defence industrial strategy, presented on March 5, is a step in the right direction, according to Joanneke Balfoort. ‘We need to develop a coherent strategy, including joint procurement, together with Ukraine, as if it were already an EU member state.’ Heisbourg noted that after a long peace, Europe is no longer used to a defense industry: ‘Just look at the face of your banker when you tell him you want to open a munition factory.’ It is time for Europe to start mastering the escalation process, he notes: ‘We have been deterring ourselves in the name of purported Russian red lines that we – not Russia – have spelled out.’

Economic opportunities: land, infrastructure, and human capital

While war is still ongoing, Ukrainians have already started rebuilding their country. Live from Kyiv, deputy prime minister Oleksandr Kubrakov for the restoration of Ukraine joined the REKA conversation. Kubrakov explicitly coupled the country’s reconstruction with its path towards EU membership, signaling that Ukraine is ready to work together with European partners to rebuild the country in accordance with EU sustainability goals. Dutch expertise on water management is already being used to deal with the aftermath of the Kakhovka Dam explosion. ‘EU membership has been our goal since the Revolution of Dignity in 2013. We Ukrainians do not want to waste this opportunity.’

REKA symposium 2 Zerkal

Keynote speech by Olena Zerkal on economic opportunities of Ukrainian EU integration. Photo: Eva Borsboom

According to Olena Zerkal, former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs for European Integration and keynote speaker in the economic session, Ukraine’s integration in the EU will bring opportunities for both. It is a matter of ‘connecting the dots’: the EU has financial resources, technology, and experience, but it also has needs in terms of supply chains. On the Ukrainian side, there is a need to rebuild the country and foster economic growth, and the country has lots of available land, infrastructure, and human capital. The preconditions for European investments have improved. ‘The war has changed the economic landscape. The oligarchs have lost significant parts of their pre-war positions,’ Zerkal said. ‘Now we have to create Europe inside Ukraine.’

In the subsequent panel discussion, Willem Coppoolse, director at a Ukrainian energy company, pointed to the increasingly important role Ukrainian natural gas infrastructure plays on the European energy market. Kees Huizinga, a Dutch farmer in Ukraine, highlighted the enormous potential of the country’s agricultural sector, with millions of hectares of arable land. ‘Ukrainian farmers are extremely efficient and do not even need European subsidies. There is a lot of potential for growth in Ukrainian agriculture, and it could even take the pressure off the sector in the rest of Europe.’ Though the war is raging on, Ukraine’s export facilities are recovering. The Ukrainian merchant fleet in the Black Sea is slowly returning to pre-war levels.

Iryna Tytarchuk, a Ukrainian economist and entrepreneur, and Jeroen Ketting of LifeLine Ukraine, emphasized the strong entrepreneurial mindset they encounter in Ukraine everyday. ‘300,000 individual enterprises were started in Ukraine in 2023, as well as 37,000 new companies,’ Tytarchuk noted. According to Ketting, the Ukrainian economy is “not just viable, but vibrant”, even in the face of war.

REKA symposium 3 Tytarchuk

Economic panel discussion with Olena Zerkal, Iryna Tytarchuk, Jeroen Ketting, Willem Coppoolse, Kees Huizinga, and moderator Wessel de Jong. Photo: Eva Borsboom

‘Today’s discussion has shown that Ukraine’s integration in the European Union does not primarily pose risks, but rather offers opportunities,’ former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine Kees Klompenhouwer stated in his closing remarks. ‘There is a geopolitical imperative to support Ukraine and jointly strengthen Europe’s security. Moreover, the economic session has raised our awareness of how diversified the Ukrainian economy is.’

The symposium Ukraine in the EU: geopolitical and economic opportunities was organised by Raam op Rusland, Open Door Ukraine, and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee under the umbrella of REKA.

An interview with François Heisbourg was later published by de Volkskrant.