08 September 2022

State of the European (dis-)Union: How a lack of transnational understanding and solidarity is straining the EU’s debate on Russia’s war

By Minna Ålander
Flying falcon
Hawks and doves aren’t getting along very well in the EU currently.

Since Russia full-scale invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the West has shown both a remarkable unity in its response – and widely differing positions between countries in their approach towards Ukraine and Russia. While everyone in Europe agrees that Geography cannot be changed and we will have to find a way to deal with Russia once the war is over one day, the ideas of how to deal with Russia vary greatly.

Hawks in the North-East

In Russia’s direct neighbourhood in North-Eastern Europe, the essential priority is to make sure that Russia does not emerge victorious from Ukraine and can never again attack its neighbours. The North-East of Europe, including Poland and the Baltics as the most vocal ones, Finland, and the other Nordic countries (and to some extent supported by the Netherlands), has emerged as a new regional group centred around their essential security interest to advocate for a more “hawkish”, i.e. tough approach on Russia.

The shared historical experience of especially Russia’s direct neighbours makes them wary of any kind of appeasement policy, which would only embolden Russia in the future to attempt further imperialist endeavours in its neighbourhood.

Doves in the West

Further away from Russia in Western Europe – especially in Germany and France – the general idea is that because of the unchangeable geography, not all bridges to Russia should be burned. France and the French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a more “dovish” approach of potentially attempting to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, or at least between the differing positions within Europe.

Germany has seemed hesitant and unclear in its position due to internal differences between the coalition parties: while the junior partners, the Greens and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in particular but also the Liberal Democrats, have adopted a stronger approach on supporting Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Social Democratic Party still struggles internally with its long-standing pacifist tendencies, the legacy of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, and the involvement of Social Democratic ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with Gazprom and Vladimir Putin himself.

Increasingly toxic debate

Both Germany and France have been strongly criticised for their approaches towards Russia, with the Baltic States and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries increasingly viewing them as unreliable what comes to Russia. Especially Germany ignored warnings from its CEE partners about energy dependency on Russia, and they now feel rightfully bitter and vindicated as Germany’s reliance on cheap Russian energy has proven to be exactly the risk they warned it to be.

However, the tone of the debate has become increasingly toxic to a point of an ever diminishing space for a reasonable discussion on the differing positions within Europe on Russia’s war. Many people in the Baltics and CEE countries have adopted a counterproductive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude towards France and Germany, which tends to discredit their message.

Germany’s gross negligence of risk management

But the real underlying – and very justified – concern in North, Central and Eastern Europe (NCEE) is the feeling that Germany and France still do not entirely understand or sufficiently consider the security interests of their NCEE partners when they are talking to or about Russia. In Germany’s case it is questionable whether it has understood and considered even its own security interests, given the miserable state of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) and the gross negligence of risk management in energy and trade policy in the past decades, especially vis-à-vis Russia and China. In Northern Europe the extent to which Germany has jeopardised both European economy and security with its short-sighted and economic profit prioritising policies is a subject of profound astonishment.

On the other hand, while Finland has had more foresight when it comes to diversity of the energy portfolio and avoiding dependencies on Russia in any critical infrastructures, mistakes were made in Finnish energy policy too: e.g. the controversial 2014 decision to greenlight the nuclear power plant deal between the Finnish Fennovoima and Russian Rosatom (over which the Green Party left the government), which was subsequently left pending final government approval and finally called off this year. Another example was the decision by the Finnish half state-owned energy company Fortum from 2017 onwards to acquire a majority share in the German company Uniper, with much of its business in Russian gas, which could now end up costing Finnish taxpayers billions of euros.

A fundamental problem of European solidarity

The current state of divisions in Europe is indicative of a more fundamental problem with European solidarity, which took a bad hit in the euro crisis and never fully recovered since. Before Russia’s invasion the North-South divide especially on fiscal matters looked likely to become the greatest challenge to EU unity, but Russia’s war brought back the East-West divide too.

In the context of the “new old” East-West division, Germans and the French feel that especially the Baltics are being ungrateful for German and French contribution to NATO’s collective defence further East. But that’s the core problem: the Baltics depend on their NATO allies for their defence but feel that they do not, in fact, understand the Baltic States’ security concerns and needs adequately what comes to Russia.

What results is a fear of being thrown under the bus as soon as the going gets too tough for German and French electorates, given that people obviously feel with Ukraine on totally different levels closer to and further away from Russia. For Russia’s neighbours, the outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine is a matter of life and death and as such a very existential security concern. Greater distance allows for a more aloof approach, which is perceived as condescending and appeasement closer to Russia.

Macron’s communication mistakes

That said, often the problem with both Germany and France is not so much what they are actually doing to support Ukraine or their Baltic and CEE allies but how it is communicated. Macron’s infamous statement that “we should not humiliate Russia”, which caused an outrage in NCEE and Ukraine, was a good case in point.

Macron seems to have learned from the mistake and has since been clearer about his commitment to Ukraine, frequently emphasising that only Ukraine can decide the terms of a ceasefire – let alone peace – and France will support Ukraine as long as it needs. But the damage was already done and Macron lost much of his credibility as a European leadership figure vis-à-vis Russia.

Macron’s credibility was already low to begin with, due to vocal disagreement from the Baltics and Poland with his frequent long phone calls with Putin in the early months of the war. On a more general level, NCEE have got the impression that in the end France will always be France – which means looking at things through a very French lens instead of attempting to understand different perspectives and concerns.

Scholz and the Finnish “NATO option”

Another example of unintended but badly failed communication was Scholz saying that NATO eastward expansion would not happen while he is in office when he was in Moscow just days before Russia started the invasion. It probably did not even occur to him that it could be understood to include Finnish NATO membership, but he touched a very sensitive nerve in Finland.

The so-called “NATO option”, i.e. the option to join the Alliance if necessary, was a central part of Finnish security policy for decades and had an important signal function vis-à-vis Russia. Such a comment from the German Chancellor – even if he only meant Ukraine but did not specify it – sparked fears of Germany potentially blocking a Finnish NATO membership bid as a concession to Putin.

Germany subsequently issued a clarifying statement. But in a highly sensitive situation such as the pre-war diplomatic efforts, communication by key actors ought to have been clear beyond any potential for misunderstanding – not least because the Kremlin can always use ambiguities for its propaganda advantage.

Disappointed expectations of a “Zeitenwende”

Germany’s perception has not improved in NCEE since the early faux pas in Moscow. Instead, disappointment with a hitherto modest follow-up on the promise of Zeitenwende is mounting. Formulated in a speech by Scholz right after the beginning of the war, the announcement of a Zeitenwende in Germany’s security and defence spending – including fulfilment of NATO’s 2% defence spending goal and an extra €100 billion for the Bundeswehr – raised high expectations outside of Germany that the country finally understood what is at stake and would start punching its weight for European security.

Again possibly a mistake by Scholz to not understand how his speech would be received outside of Germany, the skyrocketing expectations have led to a – perhaps not entirely justified but nevertheless persistent – perception of constant German feet-dragging what comes to especially military aid for Ukraine. Germany has profoundly disappointed many EU partners and NATO allies in the course of this year and the trust will take a long and sustained effort to rebuild.

Bad track record on solidarity

In addition, Germany’s calls for EU solidarity on energy now that it is struggling with the consequences of its short-sighted policy have brought back memories from the Eurocrisis in Southern Europe, when Germany under then-Chancellor Angela Merkel led the efforts to impose strong austerity measures on Southern European states with the justification that it was a consequence of their negligent fiscal policy.

But NCEE have a very bad track record on solidarity, too: the CEE especially when it comes to migration and refugees – yet another crisis in which the Southern Europeans were left alone with the problem affecting other member states less. Not to mention rule of law issues in Poland and Hungary – the latter of which is also completely off tune with the otherwise mostly strong pro-Ukrainian sentiment in CEE – undermining the EU’s values. The Northern Europeans, in turn, have shown a remarkable lack of fiscal solidarity: the debate on the EU’s Covid-19 recovery package Next Generation EU was at the level of “we don’t want to pay for Italians’ pizza”.

Brexit Britain and Ukraine

The United Kingdom has been vocally – and militarily – supporting Ukraine. British ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although domestically embroiled in numerous scandals and finally forced to resign in July, enjoys great popularity in Ukraine for his continuous show of support including several visits to Kyiv. His first visit took place at an early stage of the war in April, in contrast to Scholz and Macron, who waited until mid-June for their Kyiv visit. For the Nordic countries, the UK is their most important European security partner outside the region, and also in the Baltic-CEE region the UK is viewed very positively for its commitment against Russian aggression.

The UK, however, deliberately brexited itself out of the EU community and has been causing one row after another over different details of the separation. Six years after the referendum, the relations between the EU and the UK continue to be sore to say the least, especially over the Northern Ireland question. The more disadvantages of Brexit become evident, the more vehemently Brexiteers make everything a competition with the EU in an attempt to highlight areas in which “taking back control” has (allegedly) given the UK greater room for manoeuvre – Ukraine aid being no exception. The constant competition and bragging over who does what and how much is counterproductive. Ukraine needs its European partners to cooperate, not finger-point at each other.

Good news from the EU institutions

In sum, all European states need to take a long hard look into the mirror and understand that solidarity goes both ways. One cannot expect to receive if one does not give, and the prevalent mentality of each member state trying to maximise their piece of the cake – and eat it too – will continue to undermine European unity.

Good news is that the EU’s supranational leadership has demonstrated a remarkably unified and strong stance in support of Ukraine and against Russia’s war, with the leaders of the main institutions – the Commission, the European Council, and the Parliament – speaking against Russia in clear words and all three having visited Ukraine to show their commitment to Ukraine’s democratic and European future.

The EU has also for the first time ever financed military assistance through the European Peace Facility, worth €2.5 billion, and an EU military training mission for Ukrainian soldiers could soon follow the already existing national initiatives. In an important symbolic show of support, Ukraine was also granted EU membership candidate status in June.

A discussion on European leadership is needed

Russia’s war against Ukraine is indeed a Zeitenwende for all of Europe. While Ukrainians fight for their freedom, democracy, and right to decide over their future path (which they have chosen to ultimately lead into the EU), Ukraine needs its European partners to stay strong and united in their support.

That entails a thorough discussion on European leadership during this particular time when war has returned to Europe. And it potentially requires Germany and France to step aside and let the countries both mentally and physically closer to the fight to have a greater say in forming the European approach towards the Russian aggressor during and after the war.

Pictures: Hawk: Andreas Trepte, www.avi-fauna.info [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons; portrait Minna Ålander: private [all rights reserved].

2 Kommentare:

  1. "In Northern Europe the extent to which Germany has jeopardised both European economy and security with its short-sighted and economic profit prioritising policies is a subject of profound astonishment."

    It's also subject to profound... maybe not astonishment, but more like weary, decades-long frustration in France.

    I've read your article with an open mind and I agree with parts of it, but this lack of acknowledgement that France and Germany had profound disagreements over both economy (!) and security only serves to underscore just how unbalanced your analysis is. At least it's genuine and comes from a genuine place of wanting Europeans from all corners of our shared political space to play nicer with each other and share toys. This is why I'm trying to engage with it in the same spirit. However, the fact that you refuse to acknowledge that the disastrous Merkel/CDU legacy happened in a context of Germany often forming alliances WITH CEE to protect their business interests in the region (often at the expense of rule of law--I do intend to get back to this point...) leaves a big gaping hole in the analysis.

    France was often too weak and too disinterested in the region during Merkel's reign. Part strategic failure, part economic weakness, part geography (supply chains weren't going to skip over Germany on their way East no matter what), partly as a response to some of the CEE conservative/EPP politicians cupidity, hypocrisy and general treatment of the EU as a cash machine. Germany had 0 such "scruples"/disinterest due to nothing to gain anyway. Just ask the smoking ruins of Hungarian democracy.

    The FR/DE relationship only became more balanced with the arrival of a French President who took an active interest in the EU for a change and turned France into a far more capable partner. They still disagreed on plenty. Merkel agreed to the Recovery Plan as a reactive measure, but Macron called for banking union/fiscal reforms years before. On security even, he publicly criticised Germany for Nord Stream 2 and asked them to reconsider the project, a rare public display of pressure on Merkel that CEE think thank types chose to ignore. Which brings us to...

    "Macron's credibility was already low to begin with, due to vocal disagreement from the Baltics and Poland with his frequent long phone calls with Putin in the early months of the war."

    I'm sure they'll be graciously apologising now that the Zelenskyy plea for him to call Putin went viral on twitter. The politicians in particular. Unlike you and I, they have access to intelligence reports, a direct line to Zelenskyy himself and at least an embassy intern who writes notes from Paris informing them that this documentary aired/is on YouTube OR read any of the numerous interviews/official statements in which he repeats that he coordinates calls with Zelenskyy and calls at his request.

    Any day now...

  2. I have no problem with analysing at length Germany's blunders both in the run up to the invasion and after. I defer to your expertise on this. The more paragraphs the better. However, the article is ready to tip over from how one-sided it is. CEE in particular is touched with the lightest of brushes, their sapping of rule of law is once more treated as a nuisance, a detail, rather than a grave danger to our Union that strikes at the core of what the war itself is about. Ideologically, PiS and United Russia are openly on the same page when they identify their enemy: the West, the EU, lgbt, independent institutions and a free press.
    It's possible to praise the people of Poland for their generosity towards Ukrainian refugees (luckily in possession of the right skin tone this time) and NOT normalise the fastest autocratising government on the planet. PiS is not only insulated against any substantial criticism, France and Germany are supposed to step aside and let the organisers of the far right summit in Warsaw show them how it's done. The one organised by the Polish government WEEKS before 24/02 and in which such known putinists as Salvini, Le Pen and their now back-from-the-doghouse blood brother Viktor Orban were warmly embraced. But hey, at least they only take Putin's money, they don't call him at Zelenskyy's request.


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