Policy paper 289

“European values” under pressure from war in Ukraine

By Thierry Chopin, special advisor at the Jacques Delors Institute, Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges
& Auguste Naïm, graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure — Paris-Saclay and of the College of Europe in Bruges

Recommended citation

Chopin T. & Naim A. 2023. “European values” under pressure from war in Ukraine“, Policy paper, Paris: Jacques Delors Institute, may.


The resumption of war on the European continent reopens old wounds and plunges Europe back into a “tragic chapter of human history”. Often criticised for its idealistic approach and geopolitical ineffectuality, the European Union (EU) has had to adopt a power-based narrative and effective decisions. This “geopolitical awakening” is demonstrated in the support that Europeans provide to Ukraine and is reflected in practical decisions: unprecedented economic and political sanctions, provision of lethal weapons, broad hosting of refugees, economic assistance, etc. Such support can be seen in recent opinion polls which show that a majority of Europeans feel solidarity with Ukraine, highlighting a strengthened cohesion and a feeling of belonging to the EU.

While a majority of Europeans assert that the EU is defending “European values” through its actions in response to the war in Ukraine, there is still some confusion about the underlying meaning of the term “values” which must be clarified. Opinion polls show that these “values” primarily refer to the legal and political principles that result from political liberalism, as developed over Europe’s history and asserted since the Enlightenment. These principles constitute the EU’s founding core: first integration created the conditions for long-lasting peace and anchored democracy before it built strength through unity. The war in Ukraine has, however, brought to the fore a few paradoxes, or contradictions, inherent to the specific frame of reference of “European values”, often used by illiberal governments to discredit the European project. Given this conflicting use of the term, in political, legal, cultural and societal fields, the term “value” is not the most appropriate. A distinction must therefore be made between “principles” and “values”. This would have the advantage of creating a clearer structure for the debate surrounding the distinction between the uncompromising and homogenous respect for the fundamental political and legal principles required of all Member States and a convergent yet pluralistic and tolerant approach to the values which underpin Europeans’ cultural and societal choices.

This requirement of “political uniformity” is a key condition to ensure that the EU enjoys a sustainable capacity to address external geopolitical challenges. The development of an external European sovereignty in relation to powers such as Russia or China will only ever be meaningful if the exercise of this sovereignty defends and upholds the principles which contribute to the identity of the EU’s legal order. In this way, European “power” is inseparable from the feeling of “belonging” related to respect for the political and legal principles on which the EU’s existence and the (geo)political identity of Europeans are based. To achieve this, Europeans must maintain their cohesion in relation to these political and legal principles to avoid division. Moreover, if European solidarity, which is perceived in the decisions made by the EU and in the support of European public opinion since the start of the war in Ukraine, is strong enough to prevail and prove that it is an effective protection against a potential invader, this will forge sufficiently close ties between Member States to strengthen the consensus regarding these principles, at the very least, so that a partial lack of consensus does not endanger the entire edifice of Europe.