Europe’s response to Ukraine war has become progressively mushier

Politics: As splits over Ukraine show, a common European worldview is as elusive as ever

Jacques Poos did not live to see his most famous words thrown back at him all over again. “This is the hour of Europe,” said Luxembourg’s then foreign minister in 1991, as the Balkans flared up, “not the hour of the Americans.” As things turned out, it wasn’t. His death at 86, just before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, spared him the discovery that it still isn’t.

Much of the continent has done what it can for Ukraine over recent months. As of May 10th, Estonia, Latvia and Poland had given more aid as a share of national output than even the US. UK prime minister Boris Johnson was quick and daring to visit Kyiv. Ursula von der Leyen has been a startlingly, even unnervingly, plain-spoken president of the European Commission of late (Ukraine, she says, is “one of us”).

Europe can only ever do so much, though, without its power couple. Neither France nor Germany is as explicit as von der Leyen that Ukraine “must win”. The former’s president, Emmanuel Macron, undeterred by things like evidence and results, believes in his calling as the West’s one-man bridge to Moscow. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, speaks in terms too elliptical for some in his own domestic audience to fathom. “Can violence be fought with violence?” he asked last week, as an undergraduate debater might. Into such waffle, some of Germany’s neighbours read a preference for a quiet life over the commercial expense of a lasting schism with Russia.

Both nations can mount a defence, citing refugee intakes (over 700,000 in Germany alone) and their commitment to such sanctions as the new EU ban on most Russian oil. Both can argue that a Ukrainian victory is easier to desire in the abstract than to define on the ground. Both can insist that it is easier to contemplate an open-ended energy war when geological luck has spoilt you with resources, as it has the US.

But then both, as the most powerful countries on the European mainland, also have special privileges. Not all their fellow continentals, especially not the Baltics, enjoy the same sense of physical security. If decisions in Paris and Berlin encourage in Moscow a sense that Europe is flaky or grind-downable over time, the most likely next targets won’t be those cities.

In an unwelcome symmetry, the war has followed much the same arc as Europe’s response to it. What began as stunning Ukrainian overperformance, at least next to the insulting expectations of outsiders, has become attritional horror. What began as a cohesive Europe, with Germany overcoming its own past to set a much larger defence budget, has become progressively mushier. The spectrum of policies from Estonia to France, to say nothing of Hungary, has widened troublingly. Talk of a split within “the West” is not alarmist, but it is imprecise. The split to worry about is within Europe. Washington, the most divided capital in the rich world, has been unusually consistent on Ukraine since the invasion.

It would be soothing to blame Europe’s fractures on the present leaders of France and Germany. Individuals, after all, leave the stage in time. But Macron is a classical French president in wanting to take a distinct line from that of the US. Scholz is in keeping with some of his predecessors in a certain innocence about Russia. Their positions reflect national patterns, not just personal whims. What stands between Europe and a more unified foreign policy is deeper than transient names and faces, and perhaps too deep to ever overcome. A relatively small “Europe” was hard enough to unify on foreign affairs when Poos gave the quote that became his millstone. How much harder a 27-member one?

Those who wish the continent well are left to wonder if there might be some perverse good here. If it ever materialised, “strategic autonomy” would necessarily be led by France and Germany, unless some non-EU structure could be wrought to accommodate Britain. That would have meant, right now, a “European” posture on Ukraine that would displease much of Europe, as well as the US. Incoherent policies might be better than a uniformly bad one.

Germany can at least claim to have been sceptical about an autonomous Europe all along. The French predicament is more awkward. Macron once attributed America’s toughness towards Russia to its “historic superego”, whatever that means, and the luxury of having a “sea between the two of them”. Well, there are countries rather closer to Russia than France that seem to prefer the US approach to the Elysée’s. Two and a half years since that vivid metaphor of his, it is strategic autonomy, not Nato, that is fighting brain death. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022