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European Union leaders attend a round table meeting at the EU summit in Brussels Image Credit: AP

The European Union often seems a bit like a bag of cats fighting to get out. Rarely is there unity, progress is slow, and the common denominator for action among 27 separate nations, each with their own distinct political, social and economic agendas often sets the bar for concerted action very high indeed.

That’s often the reason why it seems making any decision is difficult and EU negotiations on any crisis invariably go to the last minute or are delayed until the very last opportunity – and then a compromise is reached that inevitably means another summit in a few months’ time and pushing action down the road.

Inertia would be the watchword for Brussels. Nothing happens fast and little happens slowly.

For the past four years, for example, despite resolutions from the European Parliament in Strasbourg and a resolved by the European Commission – the cabinet-like structure that oversees the day-to-day running of the structure that unites some 500 million people into the world’s third largest market – the EU as a whole has been slow to take punitive actions against the government in Hungary.

Greatest wave of refugees

Hungarian government has been called out for its treatment of the wave of refugees from social and political disruption across the Middle East. That 2015 exodus was the greatest wave of refugees since the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Poland too has been on the EU’s hot seat over some of its laws. Both Warsaw and Budapest, along with the government in the Czech Republic, had also run afoul of general EU policy when it came to settling those refugees.

More op-eds on Russia-Ukraine crisis

So now that Poland and to some extent Hungary now face a new torrent of refugees sweeping west from Ukraine, will there be an argument put forward that these refugees are somehow different? In fairness, over the past week, since Russia-Ukraine war broke out -- the pointed difference is that Ukranian refugees are welcome. And yes, the difference in attitudes is shamefully that stark.

The events of these past two weeks have changed the EU in a way that nothing else has before. Europe seems more united than ever before.

Over the past five years, French President Emmanuel Macron has floated the notion of the EU developing its own military capabilities.

For neutral nations such as Ireland and Sweden, the notion of a Europe-wide military force does not sit comfortably.

Across the bloc, many EU nations are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but membership of both Nato and the economic bloc isn’t linked. Sweden has long possessed a robust military and naval structure to forcefully protect its neutrality.

For a small nation like Ireland, its limited military capabilities are focused on international peacekeeping responsibilities, fisheries protection and assisting the civil powers in times of emergency. Austria too is constitutionally neutral.

Last week, for the first time in its history, the EU signed off on an agreement to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a country under attack, providing €500m of military equipment to Ukraine in a move described as a “watershed moment”.

Direct aid from the EU

This direct aid from the EU is above that already being provided by Nato.

Ireland remains neutral as a constitutional requirement, so one would think there might be a difficulty in supporting the supply of weapons. Yes, there is, but Ireland supports the supply of a further €500 million in humanitarian assistance. As Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney points out, there’s a difference between military and moral neutrality.

Whatever divisions existed from Stockholm to Sofia, Dublin to Dortmund, Oslo or Oostende, there is now unity in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

The events unfolding in Ukraine have served as a stark reminder to all 27 nations of the bloc that it was created to ensure peace and prosperity in a Europe ravaged and shattered by the events of the Second World War.

What divisions might have occurred in recent times – and the events surrounding the departure of the United Kingdom served to underscore those simmering disputes – all pale by comparison by the events unfolding on their doorstep to the east.

The EU had not only agreed to impose sweeping financial sanctions on Russia, but most countries, including neutral Ireland, Sweden and Austria, had closed their airspace to Russian planes or were preparing to do so.

The most dramatic shift, however, occurred in Germany, a country where former Chancellor Angela Merkel had pursued “dialogue” with Putin for years. Berlin has cancelled Nord Stream 2 pipeline, agreed to provide military aid to Kyiv and gave way on efforts to remove Russia from the SWIFT financial payments network.

While the EU’s expansion to the east was not on the cards, the events in Ukraine now mean that the EU may discuss the possibility of Ukrainian membership at an informal summit in March.

Ukraine has an association agreement with the 27-nation bloc but wants to become a full member -- something that Russia is opposed to.