The days of war follow one another in Ukraine, bringing with them their share of increasingly unspeakable horrors, as in Boutcha. Because it is taking place on our doorstep, because it is attacking a sovereign people, because its consequences are hitting us directly, because it is attacking democracy, because the belligerent is a major nuclear power, this conflict haunts and mobilises us, as Europeans.
The war is taking place in a country where 19th century geographers located the true centre of our continent. But these eastern marches, alternately disputed and occupied throughout history, have remained an unthought-of part of European construction. The European Union (EU) has always been careful not to define its borders. It has not made explicit the place it might reserve for Ukraine. Ambiguity has prevailed, both to avoid irritating Moscow, without discouraging Kiev, and to avoid dividing us on this potential enlargement, which has never been looked at head on until now.
The war is forcing us to do so, with a new eye. In a « changing era », France, traditionally cautious about membership applications, has already come to terms with the idea that Ukraine will one day end up becoming an EU member state. It is also the case about Moldova and Georgia. Discussing future accessions sounds strange in the midst of war. The debate seems out of place when the urgencies are elsewhere. But the promise of Europe can at least bolster the morale of this nation in arms, which the Ukrainians are now courageously forming.
Moreover, the war has broken out precisely where Europe does not yet exist, in the sense of its institutional construction. The latter is based on three foundations for lasting peace between its members. Firstly, on a deep and accepted interdependence between its member states, most of which trade and cooperate with each other. There is nothing like this established between Ukraine and Russia. On the contrary, trade between them has been declining. In 2020, 42% of Ukraine’s imports came from the EU and only 8.5% from Russia. And when interdependence exists, as in the case of gas that transits through Ukraine and comes from Russia, Moscow uses it for political purposes in a relationship of strong towards weak.
Europe serves precisely to place relations between countries, large or smaller, under the same law. It is another leaven of peace. The strength of the European idea is to get out of the power relations between states. To settle our differences through law. Something unconceivable for “Greater Russia” to deal with “Little Russia”, as it has historically called Ukraine. The kleptocracy in power in the Kremlin ignores, as a matter of principle, any respect for a law other than its own. In the EU, by contrast, the rule of law is the keystone of European integration.
The latter also keeps the peace by conducting a kind of healing of memories, like the initial Franco-German reconciliation and other parallel processes. In this respect, it also allows its members, many of whom were at the head of vast empires, to turn the page on their colonial past. Europe was not only built on the ruins of wars but also on the crumbling of empires. More than 70 years of European integration have turned nationalistic dreams of grandeur, past solitary adventures, into a collective quest for influence. In contrast, Russia, humiliated by the implosion of its Soviet empire, has never come to terms with it. The war it is waging in Ukraine is imperial in nature, hijacking a narrative taken from the “Great patriotic war” of 1941-1945.
Interdependence, respect for the law, reconciliation: these three processes have « made » Europe. And they were able to make “war unthinkable” between Europeans, according to the aim of the Schuman Declaration, which justified: “Europe was not made, we had war”.
We have war before our eyes now again. It has always remained thinkable in Moscow. Europe’s peace building hoped to be imitated. Instead, it was seen as naive. Its dependencies are vulnerabilities that are today exploited, as on Russian gas. This is why, without turning their backs on decades of openness and free movement, the 27 Member States are working to protect these achievements in a hostile and even bellicose environment. Their peace project is becoming, at the same time, a power project. The initiatives of the von der Leyen Commission and the priorities of the French Presidency of the EU Council are part of this “sovereignty agenda”, the need for which is accelerated by the war in Ukraine.
The objective is not to barricade ourselves in the shelter of a hostile world, nor to docilely align ourselves behind an American protector. What is at stake for Europeans is not to allow a new iron curtain to be erected on the continent between a West – in which the EU would be diluted – and a Russia making a pact with China. Our great challenge to this part of our continent will be to make “war unthinkable” there too. Through enlargement and other means of close cooperation yet to imagine, we will have to involve a battered and bloodless country in the long threefold process of economic interdependence, respect for the law and reconciliation of peoples. In this way, a new European order will be patiently and singularly forged.
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