If there were any doubts left on the matter, the war in Ukraine has proved yet again that the European Union is at present the only source of political progress and change in Europe. Individually, the states have become obstacles to progress.
Take the case of Germany. Here is a country that spent the past decade or two making every possible mistake in its economic policy, oblivious to the costs for other Europeans. I remember hearing from its officials over the years that Germany would never become dependent on Russian energy. Today the same officials openly admit that Germany is indeed completely reliant on gas imports from Russia.
The admission is sometimes joined by expressions of regret and contrition from German politicians, but why should we be satisfied with apologies? Is it enough for Germany to admit it was wrong and that everyone else was right, when it is likely to make new errors in the future? Or should we demand change rather than remorse?
[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]
If Germany is to change, it must do so in two ways. First, it has to accept that its policy errors are not separate from the structure of the German economy and can only be corrected through painful structural reforms. There is no hint so far that Germans are ready to reduce their dependency on foreign markets or cheap Russian energy.
Second, and just as important, Germany must correct its parochial outlook – the cause of its economic mistakes – by incorporating it into a European policy framework. Germany should no longer be allowed to make decisions alone that can seriously harm the interests of its European partners. Nord Stream should never happen again. It must adopt a more federal policy in matters of common interest.
Ask yourself what the main obstacle to a European geopolitical awakening has been. Over the past ten years, the European Union gradually but naturally adopted a world-view in which great blocs compete for influence; its policy is always that of growing the European bloc. In the meantime, Germany pursued an economic policy leading directly to the present energy debacle, while France remained captured by romantic images of an old Europe of nations that included Russia.
The problem with allowing France and Germany to continue shaping European policy is not only that they have no legitimacy to do this. So powerful are the biases and so limited are the views they bring to the discussion that such a course will inevitably lead to catastrophic errors, at least as serious as those committed in recent years. Europe would have reached much better decisions if, for example, the German approach to Russia had been combined with the Polish perspective.
There is a second reason that today’s crisis may result in a quantum leap in European integration, and it is to do with the flaws of the present system. As we enter a period of prolonged geopolitical conflict in Europe, will the practice of endless debate and consultation be up to the task? We already see how, on many questions, member states now clamour for clear and final decisions from Brussels. Should they be allowed to pay for energy in roubles? Several national ambassadors have asked the European Commission to tell them what to do. A joint decision must be reached but there is no time for a long internal process.
The Ukraine war is forcing member states to make a fateful choice: do they assume the risks of making vital decisions of war and peace, or do they prefer those choices to be made collectively? The latter option seems preferable, but in that case the EU needs to acquire strength and speed adequate for the purpose.
There is an abundance of radical proposals on how to give Brussels the tools to act in a dangerous world. My favourite would be some version of that classic element of every confederation: the power of veto. There is room in a confederation for many different visions of the future, but no member of the group should be able to compromise the common interest. The way to insure against this risk is by granting a veto to the central institutions – under such a system, for example, the European Commission could have rejected Nord Stream 2. A veto over national decisions should be used sparingly, but it needs to be available when necessary, if only as a negotiation tool and a way to hold Brussels responsible when things go wrong.
Some commentators in Britain have noted that the Ukrainian struggle for national independence shows that the nation state has once again returned to the centre of political life. Love of country is what inspires the Ukrainian fight for freedom. But this does not mean the age of supranational politics is over. The Ukrainians combine their love of Ukraine with a pull towards Europe. Many see the moment when Ukraine will join the European Union as the natural conclusion to their struggle. Why would that be?
The truth is that in geopolitics no country is an island. Ukraine can only rest after it has found a place in the world. Each time a significant voice in Russia openly proclaims that Ukraine does not exist as a nation, it becomes more pressing that Ukrainians find security within a larger whole, a civilisation state. That whole is Europe. Ukraine may be able to survive on its own, but the creation of order on a permanent basis is something only the European Union can be expected to deliver.
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future