How Europe rose to the occasion

The EU has displayed remarkable agility in its response to Putin’s war

March 25, 2022
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The Polish, German and French leaders attend a joint news conference. REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

I do not imagine that the question “Is the Ukraine crisis driving Europe together?” was uppermost in Vladimir Putin’s mind as he plotted so meticulously and with such vicious determination his war of aggression against Ukraine. But then he did overlook quite a lot of crucial questions—how the Ukrainians would respond to the aggression, how Nato would react, whether his modernised armed forces were really up to the task he was setting them, how vulnerable the Russian economy was to western sanctions—to name but a few.

Nor has the question about Europe being driven together been very prominent in the analyses of most western commentators. More attention is being paid to the way Putin’s aggression has consolidated Nato’s Trump-shaken unity, to the quandary of China and the possible consequences for Taiwan and the US’s Indo-Pacific pivot, and to the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and people—all important questions in their own right. But that European Question is up there in significance with the others and should not be overlooked, because we too are Europeans and will be profoundly affected by the way it plays out.

Consider the main ways in which Europe has been driven together. Occurring within the astonishingly short period of less than month, they include:The revolution in the foreign and security policy of the EU’s largest member state, Germany, which has committed to achieving the Nato target of 2 per cent of GNI in short order, and taken the decision to send defensive weapons to Ukraine, financed in part by the EU itself.

- The shaping of a fundamentally changed EU energy policy, designed to radically reduce dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal, without resiling from the Paris and Glasgow commitments on climate change. This includes Germany’s effective cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

- The imposition of swingeing sanctions, including the exclusion of Russia’s financial institutions from the SWIFT messaging system. The freezing of Russian oligarchs’ assets including houses and yachts.

- A generous and liberal response to the surge of three million Ukrainian refugees—a figure dwarfing the Syrian and Afghan influx to the continent, which had defied all EU efforts to respond adequately and humanely.

- The complete disappearance of the usual Putin sympathisers in the EU (Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Italy).

- The tabling of three new membership applications by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, on which the Commission has been asked to provide an opinion.

 Each of these would in normal times have taken months of agonising debate.

Does that mean it will all be easy going to implement these decisions smoothly and effectively? Of course not. Just think of the complexities that lie ahead.

Germany’s new foreign and security policy will pose any number of difficult detailed decisions for Scholz’s coalition government to grapple with. A new energy policy will impose painful costs on industry and on individuals, while forcing hard choices between renewables, nuclear and non-Russian gas—and the need to avoid slipping towards climate change chaos. Sustaining the sanctions stranglehold on Russia until there is a genuine change in Putin’s policy over Ukraine will be no picnic. Nor will handling the populist pressures likely to emerge from the migration surge. Shaping a new EU policy towards Russia that will face the reality of that huge country, with its nuclear arsenal, remaining on our doorstep; ensuring Europe remains in lockstep with the ultimate guarantor of its security, the US, through the 2024 presidential election and beyond; reconciling the inbuilt tensions between European strategic autonomy and Nato solidarity—all these things will present major challenges.

And if that is not enough to be getting on with, there is the additional question of how all this will affect the distinctly fraught post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU. That too will inevitably be changed, even if the prime minister’s crass remarks about Brexit and Ukraine suggest that that penny has not yet dropped in No 10. But squabbling over the minutiae of the Northern Ireland Protocol can only distract from the true threat facing the whole of Europe (of which we remain a part, even having left the EU).

There are more questions than answers, of course. Some could prove easier to answer, although more painful if—as seems all too likely—Putin doubles down on his approach and his war crimes. In an odd way, the questions could be more difficult to answer if Putin is seen to have failed. Nevertheless, that is surely what we should be hoping for.