Russia-Ukraine crisis 'ultimate test' for EU foreign policy

Tibor Szanyi reports back from parliament's delegation visit to Norway, where discussions focused on how Oslo and the Brussels can work together to tackle the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

By Tibor Szanyi

30 Mar 2015

The key event of the 31st EU-Norway interparliamentary meeting in Oslo was the conference with Norwegian MPs, members of the Stortinget's standing committee on foreign affairs and defence, headed by Anniken Huitfeldt.

The discussion focused on what is probably the most burning international topic of our time: the Ukrainian crisis. Clearly, our Norwegian colleagues view the issue in the same way as most MEPs - as a truly European challenge, whose relevant political, economic and security stakes are just as high for Norway as they are for any EU member state.

Much of what was said in our meetings was a testament to Norwegian parliamentary forces' wish and strong political commitment to align with major EU external political actions. This also applies to the Ukraine-Russia issue, especially regarding energy. 

In this field, Norway has been severely affected by the Russian sanctions, but it continues to support - and even contribute to - EU political unity. This show of solidarity by a non-EU partner, and external energy supplier, was particularly striking as we discussed joint interests and future prospects for Europe's energy security. 

The fact is that even within the EU, despite a strong consensus at council level regarding the energy union, some member states are not very assertive as far as their regulatory competences are concerned, particularly when it comes to the transparency of cross-border businesses and contracts with third partners.

"By now we have all realised that dealing with the Ukraine-Russia issue is the first - and may turn out to be the ultimate - test of a renewed and true European common foreign and security policy, as foreseen by the Lisbon treaty"

In my contribution - encouraged by the demonstration of EU-Norwegian common interests and political will - I chose to be frank and self-critical in assessing the union's foreign policy record in facing the emerging crisis at our eastern borders.

Indeed, the outset was marked by mistakes and missed opportunities, with the EU-Ukraine association agreement prepared in the legal, but not political, sense and with the ensuing internal and international developments coming as a surprise. 

I believe, however, that by now we have all realised that dealing with the Ukraine-Russia issue is the first - and may turn out to be the ultimate - test of a renewed and true European common foreign and security policy, as foreseen by the Lisbon treaty.

As a result, I was pleased to confirm to our Norwegian partners that more recently - mainly resulting from determined action on the part of new EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini - the EU is truly united in its view that sanctions must be backed up.

The Norwegians are also part of this unity, which is still holding up, despite certain member states bringing up doubts and challenges regarding the sanctions, concerning their efficiency, self-inflicted economic damages or even their overall sense.

As a Hungarian, I must painfully confess that the most tangible challenge endangering EU unity is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's attitude - he has turned away from certain western democratic values, instead preferring to serve Russian president Vladimir Putin's goals through separate and secret energy deals and contacts.

In strategic terms, Norway is one of the most exposed stakeholders in this power game. Therefore, throughout the conference there was a lingering question - should Russia be dealt with as a strategic partner, or as a hostile neighbour?

It seems that Putin's aspirations reach beyond Ukraine. He would probably prefer to see a different future Europe of oligarch-led autocracies. But as the Minsk-II agreement has distinctly proven, sanctions can and do work. The only language Putin actually understands is that of power and strength, forcing him to the negotiating table. 

Therefore, we need further determined and persistent European unity in external action, involving a crucial role for future EU-Norwegian cooperation.