20th Mar 2023


'Never Again' is still the essence of the EU

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"War is the most important thing in the world. When the chips are down, it rules over the existence of every single country, government, and individual. That is why, though it may come but once in every 100 years, it must be prepared for every day. When the bodies lie cold and stiff, and the survivors mourn over them, those in charge have failed in their duty."

These are the first sentences of More on War, a book by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld.

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  • Georgia and Moldova (which have been on Putin's hit list for two decades) have also applied to join the EU. A week ago, only Poland advocated their membership. Now, it is on ambassadors' agendas

It sums up why many Europeans are so shocked by Vladimir Putin's brutal war in Ukraine.

Every bomb that hits a nursery, apartment building or town hall knocks the message home: for decades, we have lived in the illusion that by not preparing for war, we would be rid of it forever. Now, this turns out not to be the case.

This sudden realisation will change Europe. We see the first signs of this change already.

We are not at war, although this could change any moment. Still, many of us Europeans feel that Ukrainians are fighting our war. In recent years Ukraine has progressively turned away from Russia, and has been getting closer to the EU and to Nato.

Putin complains that the EU and Nato have eagerly pulled former Soviet countries and satellites into their camp since the mid-1990s, but the truth is more complex: both organisations have been ambivalent about enlargement for years.

Initially, we took in many countries from the former Eastern Bloc, not out of enthusiasm, but because we could not really say no.

The collapse of the Soviet Union caused chaos in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. Entire state structures collapsed. Without the prospect of future membership, a dangerous, destabilising situation could have arisen right at our borders.

Moreover, these countries knocked on Brussels' doors out of their free will. They wanted to join the club of free and democratic countries, and worked hard to meet all requirements — how could we have left them in the cold?

The EU and Nato believe that sovereign countries take their own decisions, including on their strategic alliances.

In recent years, the enlargement process stalled because of a certain fatigue on the European side, and because of questions as to whether this or that new member was ready for membership.

As a result there has been stalling over the accession of the Western Balkans.

As for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, we were even more cautious than with Poland, Hungary and others, because Moscow objected and because of the way Moscow objected, namely by occupying parts of their territories.

The EU granted Ukraine an association agreement, so it could enter the internal market and enjoy visa-free travel, but, importantly, the EU and Nato refused to consider membership.

Former Nato secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently said: "Everyone knows - including Putin - that in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future Ukraine will not become a Nato member. It is already a buffer country. It is something you will never hear Nato boss Jens Stoltenberg say, his position does not allow it, but I can say it now."

For Putin, this was not enough.

He demanded that Ukraine itself renounced its membership bids. Kyivv refused. Was this unwise? Could such a revocation have averted war? Perhaps. But sovereign countries have the right, under international law, to choose their own destinies. Denying Ukraine this right would go against everything Europe stands for.

Even Russia recognised Ukraine as a sovereign country in 1994, with inviolable borders. In return, Ukraine got rid of its nuclear arsenal.

So, yes: Ukraine is fighting Europe's war, and Europe cannot help defend Ukraine for fear of unleashing a big, potentially nuclear war between Russia and Nato. And this is why this war touches raw nerves in Europe.

"Never Again", Europe's raison d'être, is directly at stake.

War and Peace. Then war again

Since 24 February, no one can possibly say Europe needs a new narrative because younger generations do not know war and cannot relate to Europe as a peace project. This war confirms that European integration is still, in essence, about war and peace.

This is why European leaders are acting so swiftly these days.

The euro crisis or the pandemic have already shown they can rise to any occasion. This time, they go into overdrive, proving once more that the EU depends on the political will of member states – without treaty change being necessary.

Days after Putin invaded Ukraine, the EU — which normally sends observers, special envoys and humanitarian aid to conflict areas — invoked a new Peace Facility to finance the purchase of weapons.

Germany doubled its defence budget for this year and decided to supply weapons to Ukraine. Denmark, which has an opt-out on European defence, will have a referendum to reverse this.

Even Austria is finally distancing itself from Russia.

In the draft conclusions of this week's Versailles summit, EU leaders state that "Russia's war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history".

"When the crisis is over," former Europe minister for the UK, Denis McShane, wrote for EUobserver, "Brussels should erect a statue to Vladimir Putin as the man who woke Europe from a long sleep as its leaders decided to accept responsibilities they had long shunned."

The 24 February date was a turning point, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With one major difference: back then, many were happy and relieved, except a certain Mr Putin. Now, anxiety prevails. Some even fear Armageddon.

That is why Europe is moving fast, closing airspace to Russian flights, seizing Russian yachts, blocking bank accounts and giving refugees legal status.

In some Brussels meetings, Hungary and Poland suddenly stopped being obstructive. Some two million people have already fled Ukraine.

Back in 2015, with the arrival of a million Syrians, Europe was in political turmoil. Now, a Polish minister proudly takes French and German colleagues to the border to show thousands of citizens spontaneously welcoming refugees.

The war dominates decision-making in Brussels. President Volodomyr Zelensky's application for EU membership, signed in a sandbagged palace, gives European enlargement policy a likely boost.

And not just for Ukraine. Georgia and Moldova (which have been on Putin's hit list for two decades) have also applied. A week ago, only Poland advocated their membership. Now, it is on ambassadors' agendas.

Once again, state aid rules will be tweaked: European economies will suffer from this war and governments want to be able to support companies and households. Under these conditions, budget deficits will be tolerated. Ministers are discussing the use of eurobonds, like they did during the pandemic: common borrowing to enable investments in defence, energy and food independence in member states.

What would also be wise, amid the rush to build European defences, is that these intergovernmental arrangements, however laudable and urgent, are set on a more solid, European footing.

The European Parliament needs a say. Accountability, largely absent when national leaders schmooze behind closed doors in Brussels or Versailles, must be taken seriously.

Leon Trotsky once said: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."

The will to prevent war is what started European integration. And it is still what propels it forward.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist and correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an adapted version of a piece in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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