Europe in the jaws of history

The Russian aggression against Ukraine with its manifold consequences determined politics and life in Europe […]

FEPS Secretary General

The Russian aggression against Ukraine with its manifold consequences determined politics and life in Europe in 2022, and it will continue to do so in 2023. From the point of view of country size, Europe’s largest country invaded the second largest one. The effects have been not only European but global. It is primarily the population of Ukraine that suffers incredibly from Vladimir Putin’s war, but the indirect effects have been felt worldwide in the forms of sky-rocketing food and energy prices, deepening financial crises as well as heightened geopolitical tensions.

It is very difficult to count the negative effects on Europe, and it takes some time to come to terms with some of the long-term implications. Nevertheless, after the initial shock one year ago, European leaders started to see more clearly the global ramifications of this tragic clash between two Slavic nations and the potential further escalation of their conflict. European solidarity with Ukraine – in military, as well as humanitarian sense – has been remarkable, but it remains a challenge to reconcile the open-ended war effort with the economic interests of the EU itself. For years, the European Union has been working on the concept, and the policy, of strategic autonomy. This dossier suddenly disappeared in a deep drawer in February 2022. Europe suddenly switched to security mode which also meant following the leadership of the US.

The European strategy in response to the Russian invasion has aimed at encouraging Ukraine and mobilising Western support, but it has not come without risks. In order to provide moral support to Ukraine’s war effort, EU leaders started to overstate the chances of Ukraine joining the European Union. They used bogus language (for example about Ukraine belonging to the European family) to make Ukrainians believe that somehow their country could naturally fit in the EU structures as we know them today. When speaking publicly with Ukrainian politicians about the chances of EU accession, the populist narratives suggesting that the speed of EU accession depends on the bureaucratic performance in Brussels, and not on the country in question matching EU standards and rules, frequently popped up, without being rebutted by EU officials.

At the same time, when speaking to the EU citizens, EU leaders constantly downplayed the expected costs of economic warfare. No wonder Europeans were disappointed when the sanctions imposed on Russia were not helping to force the aggressor to end its campaign and leave Ukraine alone, and even more when the continent slid back again into economic recession and started to face a long-term decrease in growth potential and living standards.

Europe ended the year 2022 remarkably united in unwavering support for Ukraine, a new financial aid package was even adopted, together with another round of sanctions against Russian officials, as well as business and media persons. On the other hand, European views remained diverse regarding expectations about how the war should end, what kind of post-war security architecture should be built, and how much room would remain for restarting economic cooperation with Russia, once this war is over.

It is therefore quite remarkable that even without a coherent all-European view about the future, a new continental organisation was launched on 6 October: the European Political Community (EPC). Though surrounded with a high degree of scepticism, the EPC offers a broad framework to include the UK as well as potential future members of the EU. For sure, the EPC would need to be further developed to prove its added value and its potential to help members fulfil their ambitions for peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity. But as a first act, it still is an important one to start the construction of order when much of the daily action is still tied down by the ongoing war, and by the efforts to deal with its immediate consequences.

Moving towards a new political architecture in Europe while the war is still raging is particularly important as support for Ukraine’s defensive effort is often claimed to be contradictory to the equally important desire for peace. Peace is almost always built on compromise, and nobody wants to compromise with an aggressor. Efforts to maintain peace through negotiations are often condemned as appeasement.

This should, however, not be the only approach. Everyone observing the conflicts in Eastern Europe should learn how we ended up in this tragic situation and form an opinion on the limitations of military solutions and the conditions of coexistence and lasting peace. One must see that war can be a way to deal with a conflict if no other way can be found, but it cannot be a goal. On the other hand, peace can be a goal and the more destruction we experience, the harder we must work to find a way out, first through de-escalation, then with a ceasefire and eventually peace.

When the Russian government, after one year of military build-up and many rounds of fruitless negotiations with the Biden administration decided to launch a brutal invasion, the European response was firm, thanks primarily to the Zeitenwende announced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This decisiveness has been tested at every stage of the war, and it remains vital in 2023 as well, when new offensives are expected, following the partial mobilisation on the Russian side, and the new deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

The war also influenced the political landscape of Europe. The European centre-left had made progress at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic because there was a wider understanding in societies about the need for solidarity. But the war brought back nationalist sentiments, and often jingoism and militaristic frenzy, which is always challenging for progressives. The centre-left suffered a string of setbacks in national elections in Hungary, France, Sweden, Italy, and also Israel.

So far, Social Democrats have not been rewarded for fighting at the vanguard of solidarity with Ukraine, and for mobilising all possible humanitarian, economic and military support. Without this progressive contribution, EU member states could not have remained so united, in this year of horror, in support of Ukraine’s defensive war effort and also the millions of refugees. At the same time, Social Democrats have distinguished themselves in this difficult year by going beyond the necessary international solidarity and reconciling it with two further objectives: the fair distribution of the costs of war within our societies, and the avoidance of unnecessary escalation and simultaneous preparation for peace and reconstruction instead. No other political force seems to be concerned with this broader responsibility, which remains a distinctive characteristic of Social Democrats. When the time comes, the wider electorate will surely recognise this.

This article is based on a longer contribution by László Andor to the FEPS Progressive Yearbook 2023.

Photo credits: Castelier

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