Zsolt Csepregi
International Relations and Security Policy Expert

Israel has to brace itself for a reinvigorated EU

The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

It is not too bold to start this article by claiming that the Russian invasion on Ukraine has opened a completely new chapter in global history. The post-Cold War era is over and states must adjust themselves to the new reality of sharp competition between powers, where intentions are actions, both perceived and real are of even greater importance than before. The exact rules of this new era is not yet defined however. It is being decided in and over Ukraine. The post-Cold War order was defined first by the “unipolar moment” of incontestable US dominance over global affairs, and later, especially after the great financial crisis of 2008, the limited manoeuvring of the challengers to the world system. These attempts include Iranian activities in the Middle East, Russian hybrid warfare in its near abroad and Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and towards the so called “first island chain” surrounding it. These attempt all had two things in common. First, they reluctantly accepted the broad framework of the current rules-based world order, second, they pushed the limits of this order as far as possible with their revisionist activities, but coming short of breaking the system.

In 2022 Putin decided (for reasons not exactly understood at this point) to end the limited approach and brake all the rules by attacking a neighbouring sovereign country with massive conventional forces, with the intention of occupying large territories and subjugating the rest in a war which we have not seen since the Second World War. If Putin wins, this will lead to a paranoid, raw-power based world order. If he loses, we might rebuild a “rules-based world order” 2.0. With the previous naiveté and indecision gone, as now every actor understands that international rules have to be guaranteed by military and economic power and societal resilience, and most importantly the will to use them decisively against any aggressor.

Even if many in Europe forgot, realistic assessment of the role of power in upholding regional and global rules are not without precedent. The Middle East has been an area in the world, in which a complex relationship in being managed, with a set of rules underwritten with each actor’s power. Israel, for example is very much familiar with this state of affairs, but unlike more regionally focused Middle Eastern states, it has to abide itself to two sets of rules, a regional, Middle Eastern one and a global one primarily in its interactions with the US and EU member states. Most of the misunderstandings between the EU and Israel originate from the fact that it has to play in effect two “games” with different rules on two interconnected “game boards”, so one step on a board affects the other one. Israel was able until now to manage this problem, but at various steps either its regional posture or its international reputation was damaged, and usually it chose its regional security interests to the detriment to its global stance.

As a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war, the above misalignment between the set of rules of the Middle Eastern regional system and the world system will change. While much of the effects of the war are dependent on its outcome, one thing is certain, European states will become greatly transformed international actors. This will affect their capabilities, mainly in term of growing hard power and the way they utilise these newly developed capabilities and power. Our analysis first focuses on the direction of changes we can already perceive and later contemplate the effects two scenarios, a Ukrainian-Western win and a Russian win.

European states and the European Union as a whole was greatly shocked by the Russian invasion. For more than a decade, since the Russia-Georgia War, European members of NATO aimed at reinforcing the alliance’s core mission, collective defence and shift the balance from the out of area expeditionary missions. Here it is worthwhile to note that “Europe” as a security actor is a very complex entity, membership in NATO and the EU are overlapping but we can see the further cohesion of a unified European security stance against the Russian invasion, regardless of exact membership patterns. Some European states realised years ago the danger of an aggressively revisionist Russia, especially on the Eastern flank, including Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. These countries tried to work with the US on reinforcing their deterrence posture against Russia, but oftentimes Europe seemed “hollow” from a security perspective, countries bolstering their defences in the East, while large member state reluctant to take military affairs with the required seriousness. This situation has changed practically overnight with the launch of the Russian invasion on Ukraine.

Germany is leading the pack, raising its defence expenditure to 2% of its GDP and turning markedly against Russia. Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor, a Social Democrat himself has created a watershed moment in European history by positioning Germany into the centre of European defensive efforts. An EU which is now using its own resources to purchase and deliver military equipment to another country, non-EU member Ukraine means that we are perceiving a completely changed foreign and security policy actor. If somebody would have suggested this course of action a month ago, this would have been an unacceptable and counterproductive proposition to say the least. Yet, with Russia not only challenging, but completely breaking with the previously set rules of the international system, Europe is on a different path now and it understands that it has to underwrite its positions with, first and foremost military power, secondly, a mix of economic, political and societal resilience. The intention is not completely new, as the current European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen marked its programme as building a “Geopolitical EU”, but the changes we can witness since the end of February 2022 are going well beyond that. Geopolitical EU aimed at gradually filling in gaps in the EU’s existing set of capabilities connected to its foreign and security policy. These gaps did not permit it to act as a great power and a credible military force, even if it wanted to act like one. There was a direction of development (outlined in the 2016 EU Global Strategy), but there was a great degree of reluctance to implement the changes with any kind of real haste, which can be attributed to some degree to fighting Covid-19, but that was mostly a cover for deeper political reasons. The current paradigm shift is both showing a strong will to transform the EU into much more effective security actor and we can already see exact funding going into the effort, not just timid plans to fill in capability gaps and upgrade selected legacy military equipment.

Israel had a difficult time with the EU, as the Jewish state was repeatedly criticised for its actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians and its bold offensive-defensive military strategy incorporating targeted killings, pre-emptive strikes and other assertive military actions in its region. Israel wanted to reap the maximum benefit from its relations with the EU, but it definitely did not want to pay the price in terms of reduced security. With the emerging new Europe to its West, Israel will find itself in a much changed environment. One the one hand European states and therefore the integrations they form will be much more attuned to the language Israel and other Middle Eastern states speak when they are concerned about security guarantees and actions undermining their position in the regional order. On the other hand, Europe will be much more focused on rebuilding itself as a credible and robust military actor and countering the Russian challenge, therefore it will have much less patience with any other actor aiming at pushing the boundaries of international rules of the system, including Israel.

Israel can greatly benefit from partnering with a more realist and capable Europe, but it will also have to contend with its more assertive positions in the Middle East. One example will be the Iranian issue, as the EU can on the one hand leave less opportunities for Iran to break the regional order with its militant activities, but Brussels will be also motivated to accommodate Iran and get access to its hydrocarbon exports in order to supplant Russia’s clout in the mid-term. The EU will be receptive to realistic Israeli concerns regarding Iranian activities, but it will not care for propagandistic diplomatic stunts from Jerusalem as the West braces itself for increased great power competition with Russia and tries to discourage every other actor to further undermine the rules-based world order emerging from the Russia-Ukraine War. There will be much less freedom of manoeuvre, especially in Europe’s neighbourhood and strategic areas on the globe, as all actions will be increasingly looked at by the West and its global allies as a potential strike against the rules-based world order.

Naturally, the outcome of the war will greatly change the framework in which this reinvigorated Europe will position itself. If Russia manages to hold significant territories of Ukraine, all actors will have the underlying assumption that raw military power is an effective tool to change existing circumstances. Some countries will be preparing for a violent revision of the status quo, but what is even more important, every country will prepare greatly to an attack leading to greatly increased arms race and a paranoid oversight from the EU and the West as a whole, clamping down on any actors trying to further upset the international system and its sub-systems. Israel will indisputably, due to its unique security perception, continue to prioritise immediate security interests even at the cost of upsetting Western partners, leading to more conflicts in a paranoid world order. If, however Ukraine comes out of this conflict mostly intact and remains sovereign, while Russia is relegated due to the large military and economic losses to an isolated second-tier power, there will be much more optimism defining the world order. If the aggressor is pushed back this will mean that the existing system is working, and it only needs revision and the West needs more deterrent power, in order to deter any future attempts to challenge it. Israel will be well advised to take careful attention to this reinvigorated Europe even in the second, positive outcome, but in this case there will be more room to manoeuvre and greater potential for mutually beneficial cooperation. The stakes of the Russia-Ukraine War are therefore the highest since the end of the Cold War and the outcome is not yet decided. However, a reinvigorated Europe is a factor Israel has to rapidly factor in into its strategic analysis and start as soon as possible to engage in deep dialogue with its Western partners how to move forward in any eventuality.

About the Author
Zsolt Csepregi is a Non-resident Research Fellow at the Antall József Knowledge Centre, foreign policy think tank based in Budapest, Hungary. He previously held the position of Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Centre. He is an expert on Security Policy and the Eastern Mediterranean region, specialised in Israeli foreign policy. He is a former employee of the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest.
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