The future of Europe after the war in Ukraine

Since Russia launched its offensive against Ukraine on 24 February, Europe has found itself in the curious position of feeling, at the same time threatened and strengthened. The invasion, of course, raised concerns that the conflict could spread to other European countries as well as causing further disruption to the continent’s economy. Putin made the situation even worse when he ordered his country’s nuclear forces to be placed on high alert just days after the start of the conflict. Although the situation was and continues to be reckless, the war seemed to bring at least one good news: the union of European countries after some years of attrition and internal conflicts.

The maximum symbol of this internal wear and tear had been been the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, but it did not stop there. The future of NATO was also put in question after Donald Trump came to power in the US in 145. For the then American president, the US should move away from the multilateral cooperation agenda and give priority to the position of “America First”. At the same time, Trump also criticized several European countries for not meeting the minimum investment target in the organization (2% of GDP). According to a report by 2021, only seven of the thirty member states invest at least 2% of their GDP in the NATO defense budget (they are Greece, USA, Poland, United Kingdom, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania).

Although this American policy was frowned upon and criticized for being isolationist and nationalist, the very refusal of Europeans to invest the minimum necessary in defense showed a lack of interest facing the future of the institution. Emmanuel Macron, who had always defended the strengthening of the powers of the European Union, in turn, did not seem very committed to NATO either, stating that it suffered from “brain death” in 2019 . Admittedly, the French president was not critical of NATO for the same reasons as Trump. His objective, on the contrary, was the creation of a European army that would give more strategic autonomy to the continent.

Nevertheless, the protagonism given by Macron to the European Union did not change the fact that it was divided internally. In Western Europe, politicians in favor of the bloc still prevailed, but the Eurosceptics continued to put bureaucrats in Brussels – the EU’s headquarters – on constant alert. If the so-called nationalists and populists of Western Europe represented a potential threat to the cohesion of the organism, in part of Eastern Europe, in turn, they had already reached power. Poland and, in particular, Hungary are examples of this.

Both NATO and the European Union continue to exist, but talks about “Frexit” and “Polexit” (departure from France and Poland, respectively, of the European bloc) were certainly not good signs of the organizations’ vitality. The war in Ukraine, however, seemed to renew both entities, especially NATO. The reason for this, in essence, is very simple: Russia is a giant compared to European countries. Its economy may even be smaller than that of Germany, France, the UK and even Italy. Her power, however, lies in how she utilizes her assets. While most Europeans have relinquished considerable control over the energy sector, so important to national sovereignty, for years Russia has used its natural gas reserves to supply its western neighbors in a strategic way: allowing countries to maintain their lights on and industries running, while curbing vigorous action against Russia itself for fear that supplies will be cut off. Furthermore, Russia has almost twice as many inhabitants as the largest European country (2014 million citizens compared to 2021 million from Germany), in addition to being a nuclear power.

If NATO served as a protective shield against a potential threat from Russia, it came to be seen, mainly by Eastern and Northern European countries, as a necessity after the invasion of Ukraine. Finland and Sweden are clear examples of this. Both countries were militarily neutral during the Cold War, but are on the verge of abandoning their former policy of non-alignment by asking to join NATO — something that should not be long in coming. As Timothy Marshall writes in his book ‘Prisoners of Geography’, Eastern European countries know a vital geographic truth: “if you are not in NATO, Moscow is close and Washington DC is far”. The current war has only given more reason to this sentence.

At the same time that the Russian invasion left all of Europe in a state of alert, however, it also brought as a consequence something that Putin may not have calculated: the revitalization of NATO’s raison d’être. If before Europe was divided internally and the North Atlantic Treaty seemed pointless, now there is a concrete and urgent reason for the various European countries to seek common policies in order to contain the resurgence of Russia as a military threat. The question to be considered is the following: is this union real or just circumstantial? Once the war is over, is it possible to expect Europe to remain united or will the old cracks appear again?

A continent divided between globalism and nationalism

The European Union, in many ways, is a contradictory organization. While it seeks to keep the continent united and at peace, its increasingly centralized policies have, in practice, resulted in a growing conflict between nations seeking to maintain a greater degree of sovereignty and others – including the EU itself – that wish to concentrating more power at the supranational level (multinational political unions whose power is delegated by member states)

This arm wrestling between local power and supranational power, in turn, allowed opposing political parties to to the European Union have gained relevance by giving voice to a feeling neglected — and even attacked — by the traditional parties. The clearest case of success was the UKIP (UK Independence Party), which managed to pressure the then British Prime Minister David Cameron to carry out the referendum that resulted in Brexit. Although the exit from the European Union was approved by a direct vote of the population, there was no lack of accusations by UKIP of being radical, nationalist, populist and even xenophobic.

Before that happened, however, the academic Portuguese João Carlos Espada already warned of the growing appeal of Eurosceptic political and popular movements. In an edition of 2014 of the Journal of Democracy, he came to agree that many of these parties were radical, but their appeal was growing among voters not because of their radicalism, but because they were the only ones who gave voice to a latent and legitimate popular sentiment:

“The reason for their success ( Eurosceptic parties) lies less in the radicalization of European voters than in what all these parties have in common: giving voice to a claim ignored by liberal-democratic parties. This claim consists in the call to decentralize more powers to the ‘local’ level (which means, in the context of the European Union, to the national level), and to return powers to the hands of national parliaments.”

Behind this phenomenon is the fact that the decentralization of European politics is considered an illegitimate matter by a large part of the continent’s political class. It is common for political parties to agree and uphold the constitutional norms of their respective countries (or even of a supranational organization as in Europe). But respecting this legal system, many disagreements can exist between democratically elected representatives. In this way, it is legitimate and even beneficial for there to be debate on issues such as public spending, privatization of companies, migration policies, as long as they do not interfere with the constitutional arrangement of a given nation.

The problem in Europe is that the discussion on the decentralization of powers acquired by the European Union is not accepted as part of the legitimate policy debate. On the contrary, such a matter is often dogmatically rejected, as if it were an inviolable and indisputable constitutional matter. Thus, practically all the traditional parties of European politics have been absent and even fought to prevent this debate from taking place, creating a representation vacuum that has been filled only by “outsider” parties and politicians quickly accused of threatening the democratic stability of the continent with its populism, radicalism and nationalism. Now, the marginalization of a legitimate and democratic debate in the name of democracy itself is not only an inconsistency, but also a violation of the principles that make any country free. Furthermore, this position is also dangerous, as Espada rightly points out:

“Delivering such (Eurosceptics) political parties a powerful issue when dealing with the position of ‘more Europe’ (in contrast to the defense of more autonomy for nation-states) as a sacrosanct principle is a multiple error: it makes these parties stronger; sows confusion by allowing normal preferences for decentralization to be identified with an illiberal agenda; exposes anyone who expresses slight tendencies towards decentralization to suspicions of being an ‘extremist’”.

In this way, what you see on the European continent is not necessarily a radicalization of parties and voters skeptical about the European Union, but the accusation of radicalism by political groups that refuse to accept the discussion about more autonomy for the nation-state as something legitimate. In the absence, therefore, of means to debate this issue without quickly suffering the label of radical, and without there being effective ways to reduce the power acquired in recent decades by the EU, it remains for a considerable part of the electorate to embrace the marginalization imposed precisely by traditional parties. . The more issues that are removed from the sphere of legitimate debate, the more limited democracy becomes, as once-reasonable demands are increasingly accused of being radical.

A European Union continues to be defended by most Europeans. Its acceptance rate remains high in countries like Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy and even some Eastern European nations like Poland. There is no reason, therefore, to deny that Eurosceptic voices are heard, since they do not even constitute the majority of the electorate in the main countries of the bloc. However, by adopting this stance, the traditional parties end up, themselves, generating a radicalism that had no reason to exist and that corrodes Europe internally.

Substantial or circumstantial union?

It must be recognized that the purpose of NATO and the European Union are different. While the first organization is essentially military, the second exists for the purposes of economic and political cooperation. The reasons that make one prosper or fail, therefore, do not necessarily affect the other. Even so, both only exist as long as there is unity between the countries that compose them. In this way, greater unity around NATO, caused at the moment by the war in Ukraine, can represent a greater unity between all nations. Even if the EU does not provide such urgent military benefits at the moment, it represents a point of unity between countries that have not been so clearly threatened since the end of the Cold War.

The problem for Europe is that this whole union is circumstantial. After the war, the same cracks that had been growing in recent years should reappear. The war in Ukraine, after all, did not solve any of the existing problems within the continent, that is, the conflict between those who want to delegate more powers to the European Union and between those who prefer to rescue the autonomy of their nations, as well as the frequent frictions between the constitutions of each country and the supranational decisions coming from Brussels.

If the lack of European unity is essentially an internal problem, there is no reason to expect that an external element will solve this issue . The dispute between the power pranational and local power exists all over the world. In Europe, this problem is even more present, since the European Union exercises its authority directly in each of the member states. As long as local governments and supranational entities do not interfere with each other, conflicts remain dormant. As international power grows, entering a collision course with national sovereignty, however, the more these conflicts are present.

The open war against Ukraine showed the West, frankly, that there are still opponents willing to confront the liberal order they promote. While this is an urgent challenge for Europeans, it must be remembered that the wounds that divide the continent have not ceased to exist and should become apparent again once the war is over. When this happens, a deep internal analysis will be necessary. The United Kingdom has already decided its position: between delegating powers to the European Union or rescuing its national sovereignty, it has chosen the latter. Continental Europe will eventually have to ask the same question about the scope where political power should be deposited. The war promoted by Russia can influence European countries to adopt one position or another, but in the end, the future of the continent must be decided mainly by the result of this tension between local governments and supranational power.

João Arantes Junqueira Payne holds a degree in journalism and a master’s degree in political science from Universidade Católica Portuguesa

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