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From these ruins, a new Europe is emerging

Putin’s horrific aggression will prove a turning point in the history of our continent

Retroville shopping mall in northwest Kyiv smoulders after being hit by a Russian missile. Several people were killed in the attack. Photo: Matthew Hatcher/SOPA. Montage: The New European

Standing on the airport tarmac, en route to a smouldering conflict in the Balkans, Jacques Poos, foreign minister of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, made a solemn declaration: “This is the hour of Europe – and not the hour of the Americans.”

The year was 1991, a moment of European hubris rapidly dispelled by war between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenes marked by ethnic cleansing, a near four-year siege of Sarajevo and the break-up of Yugoslavia.

During that bloody coda to the cold war, France and Germany were at odds, the British watched on the sidelines, and Poos became a footnote in history. It was only after a reluctant Bill Clinton ordered US warplanes to lead a Nato bombing campaign that the fighting ceased. “Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm,” concluded Mark Eyskens, Belgian foreign minister.

Three decades on, Europe faces another war on its eastern flank, but this time the worm has turned. The European Union’s response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been decisive and effective: four rounds of economic sanctions targeting the Russian economy and Prada-heeled oligarchs at home and abroad; the exclusion of Russian companies from the Swift global payments system; and lethal military aid, via individual member states such as Poland, to the Ukrainian armed forces.

On energy sanctions, the picture is more mixed. The German government led by Olaf Scholz broke with his predecessor, Angela Merkel, and cancelled the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia. The EU has also banned investments in the Russian energy sector, but it stopped short of an outright boycott on oil and gas imports. This would deprive Moscow of billions of euros of revenues, albeit at the cost of damaging a European economy already suffering from high energy prices and the cost of combating the Covid pandemic.

Overall, Putin’s war has distracted attention from festering disputes with Poland over the rule of law, the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and with Turkey’s truculent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over Syria, Cyprus and the price for hosting thousands of refugees escaping conflict in the Middle East and Africa. The reprieve may prove temporary – witness the row over Boris Johnson’s ill-judged comparison between Brexit and Ukraine’s armed struggle against the Russian invader – but it testifies to the spirit of unity among the 27 member states, alongside the UK and the US.

“Been dealing with the European Union as a student, civil servant, academic and politician since 1989. Never seen the EU acting with more determination, speed and unity,” tweeted Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister and dedicated triathlete. “A common enemy unites. No one more so than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the (then) European Economic Community, famously declared that Europe was forged in crisis. The oil price shock in 1973-4 led to the creation of the European Monetary System, the forerunner to the single currency zone. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created the impetus for the ground-breaking Maastricht treaty and the euro. Most recently, the Covid pandemic led to the establishment of a €750m (£626.8m) Recovery Fund and a mechanism for common borrowing on the bond markets, previously a taboo for budget-conscious German governments.

At times, the EU resembles a ship becalmed, immobilised by the competing interests of its member states. But when the storm hits, the ungainly craft moves forward rather than capsizing.

To switch to metaphors closer to home, Brexiteers often complained in the run-up to the 2016 referendum that the UK was “chained to a corpse”. If so, the EU’s resilience shows there is life after death, because it rarely lets a crisis go to waste.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the French president of the European Central Bank from 2003 to 2011, points out that the 12 founding members of the euro grew to 17 by 2011, the end of his seven year-tenure. These included three new ones in the heat of the global financial crisis (Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia). Since then, two more countries (Latvia and Lithuania) have joined and not a single country has left.

Putin’s war has shifted debate in the EU, creating the conditions for deeper political cooperation as opposed to purely economic integration. The focus on Europe’s relative weight in the world is, of course, not entirely new. Caught between the two competing superpowers of China and the US, Europe minus the UK has been obliged to pay more attention to diplomacy, defence and external security.

“The EU has spent a lot of time looking inward,” says a senior Brussels official, “but it is not enough to guarantee peace among the member states. The Ukraine war will be seen as a coming of age in the real world.”

Many of the security challenges are addressed in a high falutin’ document called “The Strategic Compass”, to be adopted this week at an EU summit chaired by President Emmanuel Macron of France. The paper contains a time-frame of 2025-2030 and proposes strengthened security and defence in “crisis management, resilience, capacity development and partnerships”.

The Ukraine war has transformed this wonkish policy paper into a potential blueprint for action. While the proof will be in the Euro-pudding, public outrage over the scorched-earth tactics employed by the Russian armed forces and mounting civilian casualties in Ukraine has transformed the political atmosphere in western and southern Europe.

The three-way German coalition government, initially dismissed as unwieldy, has embarked on a major rearmament programme – surely the opposite of what Putin intended. The commitment puts an unflattering light on pleas by then Chancellor Angela Merkel that there was no possibility of defence spending hitting the agreed Nato target of 2% of GDP, partly because it could provoke angst among Germany’s neighbours.

As one European diplomat noted: it would be interesting to speculate how the EU would have reacted to Putin’s invasion had Merkel still been in power. The answer, based on the tepid reaction to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, is that accommodation rather than confrontation with Russia would probably have prevailed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said as much in his video address to the Bundestag when he invoked the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, and called on Germany to assume its historic responsibilities. “We could see your willingness to do business with Russia and now we’re in the middle of a cold war.”

Zelensky’s criticism was met with embarrassed silence among German MPs, much to the fury of many in the media – a sign that German public opinion is running ahead of elected representatives, with the exception of the Green party, which has stiffened spines in the government.

A similar shift in mood has taken place in Italy, often viewed as Europe’s weakest link. Under the leadership of Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, the notoriously heterogeneous Italian parliament has just approved a 2% increase in defence spending. Again, how this financial commitment translates into practical action will need to be tested; but for now, the populists have been put in their place.

Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant right-wing firebrand, has seen his popularity slump, a fall exacerbated by his recent trip to the Polish border. There he sought a photo-opportunity with Ukrainian refugees, only to be confronted by the local (ultrapopulist) Polish mayor who presented him with a Vladimir Putin T-shirt of the type he was once pictured wearing in Moscow.

Throughout the Ukraine crisis, the frontline states – Poland, Romania, Slovakia, as well the Baltic states bordering Russia – have pushed hardest for tough action against Putin. Even the hard-right populist government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary has been dragged along. Neutral Sweden and alliance-free Finland have seen public support for joining Nato rise. Neither look likely to take that momentous step in the near future, but both have not hesitated to supply weapons to Ukraine and increase their defence budgets.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London, says European unity will be tested in the coming weeks if Putin continues to escalate his campaign and “peace talks” between senior Russian and Ukrainian officials fail to achieve a breakthrough. Already, Germany is pushing to slow or block a fresh round of economic measures against Russia advocated by the “sanctionistas” led by Poland and the Baltic states.

The Germans, backed by the Italians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Cypriots and Austrians, want to let the four rounds of sanctions take their toll, while keeping something in reserve.

Moreover, there are important carve-outs lurking in the fine print. Germany, for example, has secured exemptions on “transactions strictly necessary for the purchase, import or transport (of) titanium, aluminium, copper, nickel, palladium and iron ore,” The Times reported.

The good news is that these loopholes can be closed in future; the bad news is that business continues to fuel Putin’s war machine.

Europe, especially Germany and Italy, remains massively dependent on Russian energy. Italy imports 40% of its gas from Russia, having closed its nuclear energy plants in the 1980s after a referendum. A total ban would leave its economy grievously exposed – which explains why its energy minister has visited Algeria, Angola, Congo and Qatar in search of liquefied natural gas contracts.

A second test will be the refugee crisis. More than three million Ukrainians have fled their country, with the bulk (two million) arriving in Poland. (This puts the British government’s cumbersome sponsorship programme in some perspective, though more than 100,000 British people have offered to house Ukrainian refugees).

In 2015, when tens of thousands of refugees fled the civil war in Syria, the EU was split between southern member states like Greece and Italy that bore the brunt of the influx, and eastern countries like Hungary and Poland that objected to burdensharing. Merkel’s Germany was the noble exception when the chancellor took in one million refugees and suffered a backlash in public opinion.

The optimistic view in Brussels is that the refugees – mainly women and children who have left their men to fight the Russian invader – are keen to rejoin their families. Therefore, they want to remain close to the Ukrainian border in countries like Poland and Romania. The risk is that a protracted conflict would be an immense financial burden, raising the prospect of another 2016-style row over burden-sharing.

The third challenge will focus on defence. While the prospect of a European army remains the stuff of dreams (and far-fetched nightmares among British Eurosceptics), the EU is making slow progress on common defence procurement, interoperability among armed forces and advanced research.

The Galileo global navigation system that went live in 2016 is a good example of EU-wide collaboration. But the litmus test comes down to multibillion-dollar programmes with commensurate prestige such as the next-generation fighter jet. Here a French-German-Spanish project remains engaged in a dogfight with a rival British, Swedish and Italian prototype. “Pathetic!” says Grant at the Centre for European Reform.

In the last resort, a credible common defence policy for Europe depends not just on (serious) money but also on British involvement, alongside France. More than 20 years ago, Tony Blair laid the groundwork in the St Malo agreement, a deal updated by David Cameron at Lancaster House. But the follow-through has been slow going.

Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has concentrated European minds in a manner that contrasts with the indifference displayed after his earlier military aggression, starting in Chechnya, Georgia-Abkhazia, Dagestan, Crimea, and Syria. The indifference was shared by the US, which increasingly turned its attention to Asia and a rising China.

By contrast, Joe Biden’s administration has taken the propaganda fight to Moscow, put together a serious military aid package for Kyiv and managed transatlantic diplomacy deftly. There is a mixture of pride and mild disbelief that the bureaucratic machine has delivered and EU leaders have rediscovered their common purpose. “In a week everyone was ready for decisions which (previously) would have taken years,” says one EU diplomat.

Those with long memories point to a similar heady atmosphere when Europe formed a united front against radical Islamist terrorism after the September 11 attacks against New York and Washington in 2001. It took less than 12 months to dissolve as President George W Bush vowed to wage war on terror and launch an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

Then the EU divided. France and Germany opposed the war. Tony Blair, alongside Spain and the East Europeans, marshalled support for the American cause. This was – and remains – a reality check to those who believe that the hour of Europe has struck again.

In the coming weeks, there will be stiffer tests, particularly if Putin’s forces converge on Kyiv and seize or kill Zelensky – or if Russia’s president were to resort to using a nuclear weapon or letting off a dirty bomb to break the will of the Ukrainian government. Yet even hardened observers believe that the Ukraine war has galvanised the EU and the West in general. “We really could be at a turning point,” says a senior EU diplomat.

Lionel Barber was editor of the Financial Times from 2005-2020

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