For the first 100 days of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Europe was speaking Ukrainian and thinking Ukrainian. But this moment in European politics is starting to fade. This is the troubling finding of a pan-European survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). The government strife rocking Bulgaria and Estonia are early signals that the unity achieved in the early days of the war is under growing pressure and should not be taken for granted. What’s more, this is happening at a time when Russian efforts to destabilise European domestic politics are once again in full swing. The prospect of a long, protracted war brings with it the risk of splitting European societies and fracturing the European Union.
European populaces are ready to defend their way of life, but they do not share some of their governments’ triumphalism that victory is just around the corner. In order to sustain the unity, European leaders should be ready to change their rhetoric, while still arming Ukraine and sanctioning Moscow, yet endorse the concerns of those terrified by the prospect of a bigger war or the growing economic cost of confronting Russia.
The ties that bound Europe together after Russia’s invasion remain. Three quarters of Europeans believe Russia is to blame for the war. Equally, two thirds see Russia as the major impediment to peace. Most European citizens support Ukraine – in the form of economic aid, arms shipments, welcoming refugees and supporting Kyiv’s bid for EU accession – and take a hard line on Russia, including tough economic sanctions, banning its oil and gas exports, and sending troops to defend Europe’s eastern borders.
The challenge to unity comes from divergent ideas about the future. The public utterances of Europe’s leaders make the issue sound straightforward: Ukraine must win, and it is for Ukrainians to judge when to halt military action and to agree on the shape of peace. But the poll shows a gaping divide between the “peace” camp, which wants Europe to end the war as soon as possible, even if Ukraine must make concessions; and the “justice” camp, which thinks Russia must pay a price for the invasion and restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine, even if that prolongs the conflict.
Across the ten countries surveyed, 35 per cent of respondents are in the peace camp and 22 per cent belong to the justice camp, with the rest undecided or not providing an answer.
The peace camp is not a pro-Russia camp, even if some of its members are pro-Russian and anti-American. The majority want Ukraine’s victory and support tough policies against Moscow. In fact, the poll suggests Europe’s break with Russia is irreversible – at least in the short and medium term. Europeans no longer think of Russia as a partner or dream of integrating it into their own structures or political community. They seem to be anticipating a world in which Europe decouples from Moscow entirely.
The two camps come to radically different conclusions on whether to boost defence spending. A majority in the justice camp (53 per cent) support raising military spending, even if it means spending less in areas such as health, education and crime prevention. Just 29 per cent are opposed. In the peace camp, the proportions are almost exactly reversed: 29 per cent are in favour of increased defense spending and 51 per cent are against.
The peace-justice divide runs through every country, but the proportions differ, which is what causes us at the ECFR to believe that the split can affect European unity. Among the countries surveyed, Poland is the only one where the justice camp has a majority. And, in general, it is quite clear that while Poles see themselves as participants in the war already, most of the others are very much trying to stay out. People in the Baltic states and some other eastern European countries may well have similar attitudes as the Poles, but they were not part of the survey.
However, the war in Ukraine is not simply splitting Europe along the same east-west divide that we know it did during, for example, the 2015 refugee crisis. In fact, the peace camp is almost as big in Romania (42 per cent) as in Germany (49 per cent). And while the war has triggered fears all over Europe, they are not the same fears everywhere.
The two issues that Europeans are most concerned about are the cost of living, especially higher energy prices, and Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons. But while anxiety about these questions exists in all countries, differences emerge. When it comes to the impact of war on the cost of living and energy bills, citizens in Portugal, Italy and France are the most concerned, with those in Sweden, Poland and Romania the least. Swedes, Finns and the French are preoccupied with the threat of Russian cyberattacks to an extent that people in other countries are not. And the countries in easy striking range of Russia – Finland, Poland, Romania and Sweden – are most concerned about the threat of Russian military forces directed at them. One explanation is that Russia’s closest neighbours fear occupation and its consequences, while all states polled are worried about the risk of nuclear attack.
What do the survey’s findings say about the war’s prospects? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Ukraine and its supporters is for the world not to get tired of war, as the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May. It is a daunting task. Europeans are already getting tired: solidarity fatigue risks becoming the new reality. The number of people who believe that governments are paying too much attention to the war at the expense of other social and economic problems is high in all countries surveyed. And it is symptomatic that this number is particularly high in front-line countries such as Poland and Romania.
European public opinion has fortified the EU’s unity in the face of Russia’s war. It is now up to European leaders to sustain this unity – and take steps to counteract the growing risk of estrangement within their publics. At the same time, they must bridge the gap between Ukraine (where the peace camp is not to be seen) and most countries in Europe (where it has a plurality or majority). The next few weeks will be critical.
The survey shows that all Europeans are ready to defend their values, but many see the confrontation with Russia as a strictly defensive war. While they are ready to bear sacrifices, they will punish political leaders for any steps that could be viewed as a dangerous escalation.
In the first weeks of the war, countries in central and eastern Europe felt that their tough stance on Russia had been vindicated; they grew in assertiveness and influence within the EU. But eastern European leaders who rightly view Russia’s aggression as an existential threat to their countries should therefore be sensitive to political moods in western Europe and abstain from rhetoric of indisputable moral righteousness.
To sustain unity, European leaders do not need to change their policies, but they should present military support for Kyiv as a way of defending Ukraine from aggression rather than defeating Russia – particularly when the definition of defeat is unclear.
While the Ukraine conflict could yet prove to be the midwife of a much more muscular EU, the survey shows that support for increased defence spending is weaker among the public than it might appear from the political debate.
Perhaps the most worrying sign from our survey is that most Europeans see the EU as one of the war’s major losers, rather than reading the bloc’s relative unity as a sign of new-found strength.
But if EU leaders manage to maintain the broad front they have shown so far – and if governments stay together rather than trying to exploit their divisions – a stronger and more geopolitically savvy Europe could still emerge from the shadow of this war.
[See also: Russia must lose this war]