A number of mostly European scholars and officials reckon that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has culminated in the geopolitical cohesion of Europe. After the invasion, EU members collaborated with each other, supported Ukraine militarily and financially, imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia’s economy, opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees, and accepted the proposal of NATO to increase their defense budget to 2% of their GDP.
Many in Brussels hailed the emergence of this unified Europe. After decades of decline, Europe has come to the scene in response to the threat of Russia and showed off its abilities to play the role of a powerful geopolitical actor before the eyes of the world. The Russian war has awakened the sleeping giant. As Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy put it: “In the week since Russia’s invasion, we have also witnessed the belated birth of a geopolitical Europe. For years, Europeans have been debating how the EU can be made more robust and security-conscious, with unity of purpose and capabilities to pursue our political goals on the world stage. We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past week than we did in the previous decade.”
However, there are limitations to this apparently decisive response of the Europeans to the Russian invasion. The member states of the European Union have so far avoided direct military conflict with Russia. They have refused to send the types of weapons that can lead to a change in the course of the battle. They have not demonstrated any concerted effort aimed at the gradual elimination of energy imports from Russia. Moreover, a number of European companies are still present in Russia, despite the imposition of extensive sanctions on Moscow. In addition, while Brussels bureaucrats like Borrell are busy honoring and praising the so-called birth of geopolitical Europe, Ukraine’s frustration and dissatisfaction with its European allies is increasing as the situation on the battlefield deteriorates and casualties and damage continue to rise.
European Solidarity: illusion or reality?
There is good reason to suspect that the announcement of the birth of geopolitical Europe is little more than posturing by its leaders. The question on everyone’s mind should concern whether this vaunted unity will be maintained as the Ukraine battle proceeds.
Eight months into the Ukraine crisis, many signs of concern have appeared on the horizon. It is now becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the cohesion of a single Europe against the multiple consequences of the continuation of the crisis the war has spawned. Inflation, recession, and a growing energy crisis have worried European leaders, as have the unforeseeable wide-ranging political and geopolitical effects of the war in Ukraine. Behind this apparent unity, differences of opinion and growing tensions about how to manage the conflict among the members of the union are already emerging.
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Germany is hesitant about sending arms shipments to Ukraine. With the fall of the coalition government in Italy and the election of the populist Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni, the future of Italy’s role in Europe has become an enigma. Political opposition to military support for Kyiv is growing among populist parties throughout Europe. And although the previous five sanctions packages were approved quickly, the Europeans took weeks to reach an agreement on the sixth package of sanctions targeting Russian oil.
In the early stages of the war, the European Union showed significant determination and cohesion. Within a few weeks, Brussels passed the widest possible sanctions against Russia. European governments accelerated their defense measures. Germany added 100 billion euros to its military budget, and the European Union facilitated the transfer of arms to third parties for the first time. The Union also agreed to provide temporary protection to millions of Ukrainian citizens, including the possibility of their movement and employment throughout the territory of the European Union. In June, the Council of Europe supported the granting of candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova to join the European Union. In early spring, Europe seemed more united than ever and ready to face the challenge of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This show of solidarity did not last long. Growing economic pressure has led to worrying political consequences for Europe. In countries such as Italy and France, right-wing populist and nationalist parties have been exploiting the costs of war to influence public opinion. They promote the idea that by sanctioning Russia, European governments and institutions will only fuel the fire of inflation, bankrupt industries, and destroy jobs. The continuation of the Ukraine crisis feeds this trend. In the French presidential elections in April, the radical right and left parties put in a strong performance, a result that was confirmed in the parliamentary elections in June. The fall of Draghi’s government in Italy in July led to a victory in September for the populist Brothers of Italy party.
Europe’s double divide
A return to the old fault lines within the European Union in the event of the continuation of the Ukraine crisis appears increasingly likely. First, there is the growing divide between the east and west of the continent, with countries bordering Ukraine, such as the Baltic states and Poland, demanding the imposition of the most severe sanctions on Russia and increased military support for Ukraine. On the other hand, Western European countries such as Italy, France, and Germany, appear more inclined to compromise and interaction with Russia. The intensification of the energy crisis and the aggravation of economic hardship make it likely that the western countries far from the front line of the conflict will pressure the Union to open the door to reconciliation. However, Eastern European leaders, even as they grapple with the fallout from the war, are likely to maintain that peace is only possible if Russia is forced to withdraw and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is held to account.
The second gap is the North-South divide, which nearly split the Eurozone in two during the Greek debt crisis a decade ago. With the possibility of a recession and even stagflation in the short term, the difference in the cost of interest payments on debt between the northern and southern member states of the European Union – especially between Germany and Italy– is increasing. France, Spain, and Italy, despite having less room for financial maneuver, are pushing Brussels to focus on Europe’s post-pandemic recovery fund as well as defray some of the economic costs caused by war.
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Germany has seen its energy costs triple. It is much more exposed to Russian energy blackmail than other members due to its heavy dependence on Russian gas. The German government, instead of offering its financial resources to help solve the economic problems of other members, will most likely request help and support from other members of the European Union to reduce its energy crisis.
To conclude, there is so far no evidence that the EU has become a stronger or different power internationally than it was before the war. In other words, there is no substance to the claim that Europe has undergone a geopolitical rebirth. The populist trend is clearly gaining strength in several European nations. The traditional fault lines within the Union have not disappeared and are likely to reemerge if the war continues. Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly aware of this. The apparent unity of Europe in the face of the Russian invasion may soon prove to be a chimera.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.