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Wake up, EU! We are at war

Annika Hedberg

Date: 08/04/2022
EU leaders need to wake up to the fact that we are at war. Helping Ukraine to win that war is the key to ensuring European security, stability and prosperity.

Thanks to the incredible bravery of Ukraine and its people, the rest of Europe can – for the time being – sleep at night. But as Ukraine is fighting for the West and the EU, it is shameful that the EU member states are failing collectively to put a stop to Putin’s aggression. EU leaders need to wake up to the fact that we are at war and that helping Ukraine to win that war is the key to ensuring European security, stability and prosperity.

For way too long, the EU has been a geopolitical dwarf compared to the US, and in its relationship with Russia and China. What it does next to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have huge implications for its credibility as a global actor and a defender of freedom, democracy and human rights. If the EU and its leaders do not step up, prioritise shared goals over short-term national interests, enhance support for Ukraine and stop financing the Russian war machine, they will fail Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and jeopardise the future of the European Union.

The EU must follow the US’ lead and stop being a geopolitical dwarf

While under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the US was complacent towards Putin, the EU is lucky to have President Biden in power now. Early US intelligence on the impending invasion of Ukraine messed up Putin’s playbook. It bought Ukraine some crucial time to prepare. Without it, Putin would have likely succeeded in conquering Kyiv within a matter of days, with catastrophic consequences for the European Union, its security, geopolitical standing, economy, and society.

Should Ukraine have fallen within days, it is easy to picture how the EU's leadership, from President Macron to Chancellor Scholz, would have simply thrown their arms up in the air, issued some weak declarations of condemnation and sanctions with little impact, and done what the Union does best in geopolitics: not so much.

The track record of the EU’s self-declared leaders, Germany and France, is telling: their complacency, naivety and greed vis-à-vis Russia has done more to undermine than enhance European security in the last decades. This is reflected in their failure to enhance EU energy security, culminating in Germany’s push for the Nord Stream2 gas pipeline and Paris’ decision not to "meddle in German decisions". Both countries also continued their substantial military trade with Russia after the 2014 embargo, and Germany initially not only failed to provide military assistance to Ukraine  but even actively prevented other EU member states from doing so.

While German and French leadership continue to prefer the path of appeasement – which has empowered Putin and enabled this war – US President Biden has not been afraid to show his moral outrage. Reflecting on the atrocities committed in Ukraine, he has stated the facts: Putin is a murderous dictator.

It is time for a step-change in rhetoric and collective action if the Union wishes to become a credible global actor and help ensure European security, stability and prosperity. As Germany and France consider themselves the de facto leaders of the EU, they carry a special responsibility for the measures taken – and not taken. Together with the rest of the EU member states, they will now not only be judged on past mistakes, but on what they do next. The clock is ticking.

The EU, guided by Germany and France, must stop tiptoeing around Putin and start conveying power through words and actions. The EU member states must also recognise their shared interest in helping to stop the war. They must take decisive action to stop financing the Russian war machine, collaborate with the US on energy sanctions, step up military support for Ukraine and get relevant countries, like China, to play their part in ending Russian aggression.

If the EU and its leaders fail to take these measures, one can only hope that the US will stay the course and save Europe from itself – again.

Increase pressure on China

The complacency that the Union has shown towards Russia also characterises its relations with China over the past years. The EU-China summit on 1 April was a welcome break from this approach. The EU joined the US in communicating to the Chinese leadership that Beijing has a choice to make. China’s reactions and stance towards Russia will have long-term implications for its image and role globally, including the relations with its largest trading partners, the US and the EU. However, as the summit confirmed the EU’s and China’s distinctly opposing views, it is essential that the Union continues to put pressure on Beijing.

China holds the keys to ending this war and should have an overriding interest in doing so. There is no neutral position when it comes to Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. But as it stands, China, through its ill-considered and unprincipled support for Russia’s war, is severely harming its prestige, global status and objectives. China’s ambivalence towards the atrocities committed by Russia and its open and covert support to the perpetrators challenges its commitment to its own principles of peaceful coexistence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Forty years of careful nurturing its image in the world risks being wasted by one gigantic miscalculation.

China’s current pro-Russian “neutrality”, its willingness to support Russia’s economy and possibly,  the military, the potential cyber-attacks on Ukraine, and the Chinese state media’s role in repeating Russian propaganda should be a red flag for the EU. It should be in China’s strategic interest to use the occasion to improve its relations with the EU and the US, and ensure it does not end on the wrong side of history. But if China continues to support Russia, strong sanctions must be imposed. It is high time for the EU leaders to stop being naïve and complacent with China.

Step up, lead and help save Europe

While the Union’s initial response to the Russian attack was better than expected, and the EU, its member states and European citizens have demonstrated great solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians, this is no time to congratulate ourselves. Not as long as the EU is paying Russia hundreds of millions of euros per day in return for fossil fuel imports while the country is massacring civilians at the heart of Europe, destroying cities, bombing homes, mining playgrounds, kidnapping and torturing people, and forcing Ukrainians to become refugees. With the Russian leadership and military continuing the destruction of Ukraine, showing no limit to how far they will go, the cost of continuing to sponsor this war is going up every day.

The EU’s response will ultimately be judged based on its actions – and so far, it is failing. The latest EU Summit was a low point in recent EU history. While Ukrainians are fighting for the values the Union claims to stand for, EU leaders focused on avoiding higher energy bills for EU citizens rather than agreeing on how to put an end to the sponsoring of Putin's war and take immediate measures to wean the EU off of Russian gas and oil. Countries, including Hungary and Germany, should be ashamed for even suggesting that their populations should not have to pay more for the war.

What the EU needs are leaders that communicate to their people that ending this war and achieving peace requires sacrifices, and that these can be managed. The EU should be looking to stop Russian oil and coal imports with immediate effect. With adequate management, the disruption for the EU would only be temporary. Stopping Russian gas imports is trickier, but this can also be doneand sustainably. The increase in energy bills can be addressed immediately by reducing demand and, in the longer term, with a clean energy transition.

Any related sacrifices would be small and manageable compared to what this war is costing Ukraine and its people – and what the war will cost the EU eventually if it does not step up its support for Ukraine. The costs of the humanitarian and refugee crises, as well as the rebuilding of Ukraine are only going up. Failing to act now would have a detrimental impact on the EU’s credibility in Europe and beyond; on its unity, security, societal cohesion, and the economy as a whole.

This war is an ultimate test for European leaders. Those that are helping Ukraine to resist and prevail are helping to ensure that the war does not escalate and spill over to the rest of Europe. Those that fail to see that this is a fight for European values and the Union’s future have already lost all credibility. Those who believe that cheap oil and gas from Russia are more valuable than Ukrainian lives and the future European order will forever find their names inscribed on the wrong side of history.

This war will define the future of the EU and its role in Europe and around the world. We are at war and in desperate need of leadership that starts acting accordingly.

Annika Hedberg is Head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme.

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