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15 June 2022updated 17 Jun 2022 8:09am

The war in Ukraine should have strengthened Europe’s common voice. Why hasn’t it?

"European sovereignty" has to bind in central and eastern states if it is to succeed

By Jeremy Cliffe

Extraordinarily peaceful by international comparison, and sheltered by the American defence umbrella, Europe long deemed its ability to defend itself a low priority. After the Cold War, the continent felt safe and rich enough not to worry about its lights going off, tanks rolling across its plains or guns firing in its streets. That complacency was already looks dangerous as 2022 began. Donald Trump’s presidency had put US reliability (and with it, Nato) in doubt. The realities of a more turbulent world of big-power conflict, pandemics, climate crisis and political unrest had undermined old certainties. All that formed an argument for what Emmanuel Macron calls “European sovereignty”, or the collective ability of democratic European states to defend their shared interests and decide their own fates.

It had been clear well in advance that 2022 and 2023 would be important years for this agenda. A new, post-Merkel German government under Olaf Scholz has taken office. Macron has won re-election (as long seemed likely). And the EU’s often problematic third economy, Italy, has a popular and respected prime minister in Mario Draghi. Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission is in office until 2024 and backs a “geopolitical” Europe. As this year began, the scene was set for the biggest overhaul of the EU since at least the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 and perhaps even the Delors transformation of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Then came Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which looked like a catalyst for Europe to find a common voice in the world. “Europe will be forged in crises,” Jean Monnet, a founding father of the EU, had once said: “and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Here was a crisis that seemed precision-engineered to make the case for a sovereign Europe.

Yet things have not worked out accordingly. The US has dominated the Western military support for Ukraine. Nato has roared back. But the EU has not looked like a top player in what should have been the hour of European sovereignty.

This is not the fault of the union’s institutions. The European Commission has pulled every lever it can to support Ukraine (Von der Leyen was warmly greeted by Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on 11 June – her second visit there since the war began). The European Parliament has applied pressure on governments to do more to support Kyiv. Many EU states have risen to the moment: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltics, the Nordics and Spain are clearly committed to an emphatic Ukrainian victory and have strained to give it the tools it needs to win. The biggest European power in that camp is no longer an EU member: the UK.

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[See also: Angela Merkel’s self-justification on Russia does not add up]

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Yet the heartlands of the ideal of a sovereign Europe have languished behind. France, Germany and Italy have indicated a preference for a negotiated solution rather than the potentially long and painful work of driving Russia back to the status quo before 24 February. These states have given Kyiv weapons, but with the goal of creating the circumstances for talks. Scholz declines to say “Ukraine must win” in public (preferring the ominously vague “Ukraine must persist”), while Macron has expressed concern about Russia being “humiliated”. France, Germany and Italy are not backing formal EU accession status for Ukraine. Scholz, Macron and Draghi are due to visit Kyiv on 16 June, long after several of their central and eastern EU counterparts. Are they going there to pledge support, or to pressure Zelensky to make concessions to Putin?

It all amounts to a paradox. Why are the countries and leaders keenest on a sovereign Europe the same ones obstructing a proactive European response to Putin’s attack? It is tempting to blame commercial interests, but even Germany is decoupling from its energy trade with Russia. A more convincing explanation is that the “European sovereignty” imagined in Paris, Berlin and Rome implicitly meant a two-tier EU, with western capitals taking the big decisions and capitals to their east following that lead.

European sovereignty is a welcome goal. The democratic states that dominate the continent should take more responsibility for their own security. Their reliance on the US cannot last indefinitely. The Republican Party is turning against the Western alliance – and against liberal democracy itself. And even Democrats are tiring of underwriting European security (the Atlanticist viewpoint behind the US commitment to Ukraine comes from Joe Biden, the last Cold War-vintage president, and is likely unrepresentative of the Pacific America of the mid-21st century).

Paris, Berlin and Rome are right to push for a powerful Europe. But for that agenda to survive they need to change mindset: from the EU’s old western hubs dictating terms to newer members, to a genuine partnership that recognises how eastern and southern states will be the front line of any sovereign Europe and which grants them at least equal voices on foreign and security policy. States such as Poland are already sceptical about French visions for the continent, preferring Nato and the transatlantic alliance. The best way to build an EU ready for a Pacific America is to win over those eastern states for European sovereignty by listening to them and embracing their instincts on Ukraine. A first step would be to add Poland’s President Duda to the Macron-Scholz-Draghi visit. A more crucial step would be for Old Europe to join central and eastern Europeans in saying loud and clear: Ukraine must win.

Update 17 June: Since this article went to press, Germany, France and Italy have announced their backing for Ukraine’s EU accession status.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s Britain stands as an international epitome of visionless drift]

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down