Europe Caught Between Russian Threat and Dependence on the US

February 1, 2024

The European Union is struggling with the Russian threat and the energy crisis, and is trying to make Europe independent of the US.
A file photo dated on September 3, 2016 shows thousands of people gathering during the 'March for Europe' to protest against the Brexit vote in the European Union (EU) referendum in London, United Kingdom. Photo by Anadolu Images.


he European Union is at a crossroads: it is struggling to deal with vital issues such as the Russian threat and the energy crisis, and trying to build a Europe that is more independent of the U.S. through greater cooperation with its neighbors. In 2024, Europe faces a busy agenda, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, Trump’s possible return as U.S. president, and EU parliamentary elections.

As we leave 2023 behind, the shattering events of the past period are challenging the European Union (EU) and all political actors. While the EU has been busy implementing its twin transformation agendas of the green consensus and digitalization, it has had to confront a changing geopolitical environment, first with the COVID-19 crisis, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing energy crisis.

All these factors have led the EU to focus on urgent action. While Europe appeared more united at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the protracted war has led to the emergence of divergent voices. Finally, Israel’s response to Hamas’s attacks started badly and got worse.

The Russia-Ukraine war and the EU enlargement process

The 27 member states of the European Union have repeatedly expressed their commitment to providing Ukraine with all necessary assistance to defend its territory, fearing that a potential Russian victory could threaten the security of Europe as a whole. But as the war has dragged on, the spirit of solidarity and determination in Europe has waned. Decisions on providing financial aid to Ukraine are becoming increasingly difficult within the EU. The strategy of leaving it up to Kyiv to decide whether or not to open negotiations with Russia could be revisited in 2024.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has stated, “Our goal is a just and lasting peace, not a frozen conflict. The best way to bring stability and prosperity to Ukraine is EU membership. Europe can be the solution for a resurgent Ukraine.”

Von der Leyen’s comments were seen by many member states as premature and a step too far. Full membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova are due to start in 2024. Possible EU membership for war-torn Ukraine would be extremely costly for the Union. For this reason, even Poland and the Baltic states, two of Ukraine’s biggest political supporters, are hesitant and uneasy about opening negotiations with Kyiv: Ukraine’s accession to the EU would mean that member states would become Brussels’s paymasters rather than Brussels’s recipients. EU officials are trying to reassure nervous members that negotiations are just the beginning and that full membership could be years, if not decades, away.

The countries of the Western Balkans, some of which have been waiting at the EU’s doorstep for almost 20 years and all of which want to join, are watching with suspicion as Ukraine and Moldova try to become full members at record speed. Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia are expected to be given a concrete date for full membership, partly to reduce Russian and Chinese influence. Prospects are less rosy for Serbia and Kosovo, where ethnic conflicts are holding back progress.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, is only slowly shedding its image as a dysfunctional state. Its biggest obstacle will be the potential struggle between Bosnian Serbs and other ethnic groups, provoked by Russia.

EU’s Internal Problems

Before new members can join, the EU’s decision-making mechanisms and finances must be fundamentally reformed. French President Emmanuel Macron has long argued that Europe must be sovereign and economically strong to maintain its ability to absorb new members. The German government’s draft reform also includes a clause that would allow more decisions to be taken by majority rather than unanimity.

The EU’s search for resources is another issue that needs to be addressed. Over the next seven years, the Commission wants to add €66 billion to the Union’s €1.1 trillion budget. The deep divisions between Northern European countries, which pay more into the EU budget than they receive, and Eastern and Southern European countries, which receive more than they pay out, could worsen in 2024.

EU diplomats say it is not yet clear whether some of these reform proposals will be implemented in 2024. For the unanimity clause to be overridden, the decision has to be taken unanimously. But the EU has not been able to bring Hungary and Poland, which in recent years have ruthlessly used their right of veto to say “no” to almost everything, back to a sensible line.

Proceedings against these two countries for breaches of the rule of law have stalled. Hungary’s anti-EU prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is likely to remain in power in 2024. There is hope for Poland, however, with former EU Council president and pro-European liberal Donald Tusk taking power in Warsaw.

When eight Central and Eastern European countries, Malta, and the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU 20 years ago, Brussels reluctantly adopted the Treaty of Lisbon, which is still in force and establishes the basis for the Union’s internal order (functioning as a form of constitution). The debate on updating this treaty will be much more relevant in 2024.

Meanwhile, EU citizens are far removed from these discussions. According to the Eurobarometer survey, 60% of EU citizens complain that they do not have enough influence on decisions taken in Brussels, yet they are generally optimistic about the future of the EU. Surprisingly, France is the least optimistic, given that it is one of the founding countries of the Union. The optimism rate there is less than 50%. The most optimistic citizens are the Danes, with 86%. In Germany, 58% are optimistic about the development of the EU in 2024.

Regional and global challenges

Europe’s response to the Gaza crisis started badly and got worse. The war in Ukraine gave the EU an opportunity to gain some geopolitical prominence. In the face of the war, the Union produced a number of policies, such as paying for arms to be sent in response to Russian aggression. But it failed to show the same unity and resolve when it tried to project a strong EU in response to the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Some European countries, notably Ursula von der Leyen’s Germany, instinctively sided with Israel and emphasized its right to defend itself. But others, such as Spain and Ireland, are more concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, warning of a humanitarian catastrophe. While Ukraine unites the continent, the Israeli conflict has the potential to divide it.

These developments undermine von der Leyen, who has been the face of a stronger and more geopolitical Europe since the Russo-Ukrainian war. The EU’s and von der Leyen’s influence extended beyond Ukraine. In a speech in March 2023, von der Leyen called for “de-risking” rather than “decoupling” economic relations with China, setting a new tone in relations with that country; she also has worked closely with the United States. New buzzwords such as “strategic autonomy” and “Team Europe” suggested that the bloc would play a full role in geopolitics as a third power in a bipolar world.

In terms of relations with the United States, the return of Donald Trump to the White House as president, despite the lawsuits against him, could mean the beginning of difficult times not only for the EU but also for NATO. Ukraine’s most important ally in terms of support, deterrence against Russia, and trade could be left out in the cold. If Trump becomes president again, Brussels would be forced to take over much of the military aid to Ukraine to avoid offending the unpredictable U.S. politician.

The German-American Chamber of Commerce predicts that Trump could punish Europe with high tariffs if he wins the presidency. In such a case, the EU would also have to raise tariffs and other fees against the U.S. This would likely trigger a new trade war, which would mean lower U.S.-European trade volumes and slower economic growth.

The worst-case scenario, say foreign policy experts in Brussels, is that if Trump worsens relations with China, the main trading partner of many European countries, the world could be set on an even more unstable path than it already is.

European elections in 2024 and possible scenarios

There will be nine parliamentary elections in Europe in 2024, most of which are expected to result in either a change of government or significant policy shifts in the countries concerned. Political fragmentation is therefore likely to become even more pronounced in Europe in 2024. Stable majorities for governments will be harder to come by, and countries governed by coalitions are likely to have to rely on multi-party agreements, further fueling political fragmentation across Europe.

Challenges such as the existence of a minority government in France, growing instability and infighting in Germany and Austria, the recent collapse of the coalition and election victory of the far-right Wilders in the Netherlands, and the reliance on small hardline parties in Spain will continue to constrain policymaking.

Growing discontent with the political establishment in general means that mainstream parties are also shifting towards more radical policies espoused by the far right and far left, especially on migration. In Austria, in particular, the far right is likely to enter government after the September 2024 elections, potentially becoming the largest party. In Portugal, early elections have been called for March 2024 after the fall of the government in November 2023. Polls suggest that the right-wing bloc, backed by the far-right Chega (Enough!) party, has a good chance of forming the next government in the country.

In early June 2024, around 400 million Europeans will go to the polls to vote in elections for the European Parliament (EP). However, in the last elections, only around 200 million voters went to the polls. According to the Eurobarometer survey, the most important issue for European voters is their economic situation and standard of living. Issues such as Ukraine, migration, reforms, and the EU enlargement process are of secondary importance when it comes to voting.

The current president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is expected to continue in this position after the elections. For this to happen, she must be nominated by the governments of the 27 EU member states and approved by the EP.

Polls suggest that the Christian Democrats will again form the largest group in the EP, and that the far-right and right-wing populists are likely to increase their votes. This is likely to affect EU policy on issues such as migration, climate change, and EU enlargement.

In addition to these challenges, the Union has several other tasks to fulfill in 2024. One such task is the process of implementing the EU’s pact on migration and asylum, which has been the subject of intense debate. The Union also needs new rules on borrowing for member states’ budgets and a regulation on artificial intelligence needs to be implemented as soon as possible. It is also important to push for more investment in climate-friendly technologies.

Dr. Turan obtained his PhD from Sakarya University's Institute of Social Sciences, Department of International Relations, with his thesis titled: "Democracy Promotion Policy of the European Union: Its Role and Dilemma in Turkey's Democratization". During his doctoral studies, he worked as a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany for one year. He currently works as an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations at Sakarya University. Turan published journal articles in Alternatives, Warin History, Turkey and Middle East Studies Journal. His areas of expertise are regional policies, Israeli foreign policy, democratization and the Middle East.