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26th Jan 2023

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Is this strange summer a moment of change?

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It is a strange, strange summer. The war in Ukraine continues, 60 percent of Europe is in danger of drought and Covid is still around and could rebound in the autumn. At the same time, everyone is desperate for normalcy.

People are jetting around for summer holidays as if it were 2019 again, desperate to move on from the past couple of years.

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  • A successful blitzkrieg and de facto incorporation of Belarus and Ukraine into Russia would have resulted in a colossal, reactionary state at the EU's border, intent on destroying democracy, the EU and all it stands for

But we are now experiencing multiple crises, and, looking back, the outbreak of Covid in early 2020 appears to have been the start of a period of catastrophe for the European continent, if not the world. So how are democracies dealing with this situation?

Support for Ukraine remains strong across Europe.

But there is a sense that the war is sucking us back into times we considered long-past. In a continent ravaged by wars for centuries, war no longer seemed to be the most serious problem.

Other problems appeared more pressing: Covid, climate change, global inequality, racism, migration and extreme political polarisation. But then Vladimir Putin slammed the old problem of war back on the table.

We should not have been surprised. For more than 20 years, his rule has been littered with brutalities and challenges to the rules-based international order. In his worldview only raw power counts. He thought he had greatest power in the military realm, so was eager to start military conflicts.

Many Europeans are struggling to come to terms with this 'new-old' reality of war. They hope it goes away as soon as possible.

While this reaction is understandable, the truth is that we owe a debt of gratitude to Ukraine's army for destroying the Kremlin's vision of a 'tri-state' of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (a somewhat under-discussed vision laid out in an article posted accidentally by Ria-Novosti on 26 February).

A successful blitzkrieg and de facto incorporation of Belarus and Ukraine into Russia would have resulted in a colossal, reactionary state at the EU's border, intent on destroying democracy, the EU and all it stands for. Had Putin succeeded, our problems would have been much bigger.

An earlier and decisive response to Putin's aggressions, at the latest when he annexed Crimea and instigated conflict in the Donbass in 2014, could have prevented the current disaster. But most political leaders looked away.

We should not lose focus again, out of war fatigue. The path ahead for Europe and its allies is to support Ukraine's war effort more decisively. Russia will only come to the negotiating table if its military fortunes worsen further. Lukewarm support to Ukraine's army will only prolong the conflict.

Climate in crisis

Lack of foresight and decisiveness has also marred our response to climate change. The problem has been known for decades, the effects have been visible for many years and are exactly as predicted by scientists.

Every passing year without a significant reduction of CO2-emissions is a year lost and yet our societies and political leaders have largely continued as if an extreme and imminent danger could be averted by incremental steps.

As a case in point, there is great doubt that the EU we will be able to fulfil the green deal, to be climate-neutral by 2050. It is also doubtful whether this would be enough to stop the worst effects of global warming, even if implemented.

The best hope now is that attitudes change fast as a result of people's direct experience, not least during this ferocious, strange summer.

Arguing that democracies should show more foresight and decisiveness does not imply that authoritarian regimes do better.

Contrary to popular belief, authoritarian leaders are often motivated by short-term interests as well. China's Xi Ping maintains his unsustainable 'zero-Covid' policy because he cannot admit a mistake before the next party congress in the autumn, where he wants to be confirmed for a (norm-breaking) third term as party chairman.

It is true that authoritarian leaders may sometimes be able to better pursue more long-term plans, as they don't have to convince voters to grant them new terms.

China is a case in point. It has managed to implement impressive long-term plans that have transformed the country.

This has included significant investment in renewable energies and implementation of many commitments to reduce CO2-emissions (though it needs to be much more ambitious in its goals, says the Climate Action Tracker, a tool provided by climate think tanks).

But these long-term plans may also be terrible, such as China's plan to invade Taiwan would be.

Putin had a long-term plan to rebuild Russia as a military power and re-establish it as an Empire. It was an awful plan that has caused huge suffering and brought no benefit even to ordinary Russians.

There is no reason to hope autocracies will get us out of impending catastrophes. But after this summer of war, heat and drought, we may have learned one lesson: democracies have to get better in dealing with emergencies. They have to learn to use foresight and to act decisively on it.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

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

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