When transactional diplomacy dresses up as a rules-based system

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


We all know that we live in a world blessed with a rules-based international system. Still, there are moments when the transactional nature of diplomatic and/or foreign policy moves becomes so pronounced, that one cannot deny it.

The EU choreography around the exercise of the Union’s soft power by opening accession talks with Ukraine was, well, truly European. European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the decision, barging unannounced in the media room of the Summit, to claim: “This is a historic moment. It shows the credibility of the EU and its strength” Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyi chimed in through Twitter/X “This is victory for  Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe”.

Of course, it first took all of German Chancellor’s Olaf Scholz persuasion to convince obsessively negative Hungarian leader Victor Orban to abstain from the final vote on the issue of EU opening accession talks with Ukraine (along with Moldova), which allowed for the decision to be taken – by unanimity. In this overly subtle way, the ghost of General De Gaulle was called to participate to this latest round of EU evolution: the roundabout institutional way of “la chaise vide” /empty chair had allowed the budding (then) six-member EEC to function when France was in a negative mood, after first causing a traumatic blocking.

Truth be told, Orban had his share of power projection: the other part of EU support to Ukraine, the 50 billion euros kitty to fund the war effort and/or the reconstruction of Ukraine will have to wait for 2024, with a special Summit convened to that effect (or, rather, to decide the more general set-up of the EU Multiannual Financial Framework of trillion-plus euros, in which support to Ukraine will be  close to 5%). The fact that the EU stop-and-go over aid to Ukraine occurred just when the US Congress was holding up American aid to the tune of 61 billion dollars highlights the importance of European funding for Kyiv. The “Ukraine Facility” of 33bn in loans and 17bn in grants is pegged on a twice-that-size review of the EU MFF; it is not improbable that the tactics of V. Orban will push towards a grid of bilateral support on part of EU Member States – which will cause an unwanted situation of having to push decisions through national Parliaments.

There are more dragons and goblins to the story. Hours before the EU Summit started, the European Commission unblocked 10.2 billion euros of EU cohesion funds earmarked for Hungary. Part of 31 billion euros that were blocked – due to conditionality requirements of the RRF/Recovery and Resilience Plan and a series of rule-of-law transgressions of Hungary, with the independence of the judiciary being in the focus of EU grievances over  Orban policies.

Now that the decision to go down the path of accession talks with Kyiv is taken, the proverbial child at Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who blurted out that the sovereign was naked, may remind to all that the accession process is long and tortuous: at its end, there is the requirement of ratification by all national parliaments, or referenda or whatever national procedure. Which discloses the real pursuit of the accession process decided for Ukraine: a declaration of willingness to assist Kyiv – the “soft power dimension” – while not getting to a conflict situation with Moscow. Pushing to early 2024 the final decisions over financial assistance makes it highly probable that Victor Orban will claim (and get…) Hungary’s remaining funding from the EU. Let’s not forget that such funds were frozen because the rule of law was seen in serious jeopardy in Hungary. And the rule of law is fundamental to a rules-based international system – or isn’t it?

To round it all, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who was staunch supporter of aid to Ukraine – to the point of regularly dressing in the colors of the Ukraine flag – made it know she was descending to the arena to claim a second term at the helm of “Europe”…

Kicking the can down the road – and doubling down on principles, too – is in no way a European privilege. Just look at the pas-de-deux between the US and Turkey on the matter of the latter’s keeping the block to the participation of Sweden to NATO until the former releases the much-awaited F-16 fighters to the Turkish Air Force. Here, decisions might get pushed to mid-2024… More unabashedly transactional diplomacy, here, too. But that could be expected from Washington and Ankara, while the halls of democracy in Brussels were more propitious to fundamental rights – or was this just an optical illusion.

[A footnote with Greek interest: the inventiveness of Chancellor Scholz in calling Victor Orban to take a coffee break so as to allow for unanimity to be circumscribed at the EU Summit might come into play over Greece’s blocking the accession progress of Albania, due to Tirana having blocked a Greek-minority mayor being sworn  in Chimara. Which, Greece claims, constitutes a breach of  mayor-elect Fr. Beleris’ fundamental rights].