The war in Ukraine reminds us what the EU is for. But even bigger challenges lie ahead | Timothy Garton Ash

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It’s springtime in Brussels and the European Union has a spring in its step. Its leaders and institutions have been galvanised by the war in Ukraine. “The war has reminded us what Europe is really about,” people kept telling me on a recent visit to the EU’s capital.

There’s a popular theory that says European integration advances through crises. The truth is that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. You’d have to be a starry-eyed Euro-optimist, for example, to claim that European unity was really advanced by the 2015-16 refugee crisis. But in its last two big ones, the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, we have seen the “challenge and response” mechanism that the historian Arnold Toynbee identified as one of the patterns of history.

After a slow start, and an initial sharp reversion to unilateral national actions, the EU responded to the economic consequences of the Covid pandemic with a bold leap forward: €800bn (£700bn) of recovery funding for member states, branded NextGenerationEU. Two longstanding north European taboos were felled at once. There was now shared European debt and much of the money would be distributed in the form of grants, not just loans, to hard-hit countries such as Italy. European leaders finally did what they should have done a decade before, reacting to the eurozone crisis that first became acute in 2010.

Even more remarkable has been the response to the war in Ukraine. Despite the best efforts of rogue nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, European solidarity has been maintained through 10 rounds of tightening economic sanctions on Russia. Ukrainian refugees have been made welcome across the bloc, putting to shame Britain’s niggardly, obstructionist visa procedures. After another slow start – slow starts are what you get with a still substantially intergovernmental community of 27 different states – the EU is giving €18bn of economic support to Ukraine this year. Not only have many individual member states offered impressive levels of military support to Ukraine, in a move that would have been unthinkable before Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, something called the European Peace Facility is being used to commission large-scale purchases of arms and ammunition for the Ukrainian armed forces, whose major counteroffensive is to be expected in the next few weeks.

What is more, we have seen strategic leadership coming from the European institutions. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has found the great cause of her presidency in supporting Ukraine. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, has argued forcefully for extending the scope of the European Peace Facility. The European parliament has been instrumental in pushing forward the agenda of eastward enlargement. The EU now has a major geostrategic project in a new round of enlargement, to include Ukraine, Moldova and possibly Georgia, as well as the western Balkans, and another in the interlinked fields of energy security and green transition.

The EU also enjoys substantial support. The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll suggests that, taking an average across the 27 member states, most European citizens “tend to trust” the institutions of the EU more than their own national governments and parliaments (47% to 32% and 33% respectively); 45% have a generally positive image of the EU, against 18% negative; 62% say they are optimistic about the future of the EU, against 35% pessimistic. To cap it all, another recent poll shows that since Brexit, even the British have come to have more confidence in the EU than in their own government and parliament.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán after an EU summit in Brussels on 24 March.
‘Despite the best efforts of rogue nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, European solidarity has been maintained.’ Photograph: Olivier Matthys/EPA

Now for the bad news. The politics of many individual member states tell a far less pretty story than these headline figures, and the external challenges that this union faces are larger than at any time before. If you dig a little deeper into that Eurobarometer data, you find a regular question that has always intrigued me. It asks people to agree or disagree with the statement “(our country) could better face the future outside the EU”. When this was asked before the 2016 Brexit referendum, an average of 34% across the EU of 28 agreed. This year, in an EU without those bloody-minded Brits, it’s still 27%. In Slovenia, the figure is 42%, Croatia, 41%, Poland, 40%, and Austria, 38%. In Belgium, which graciously shares its capital with the EU, it’s 33%.

This doesn’t mean anyone’s going to follow the British example any time soon. What’s happened to Britain since 2016 would put most people off that. But it does mean that there are a lot of Europeans who are unhappy with the EU, and their populist nationalist leaders want to transform the union from within, rather than leave it. Fascinatingly, fewer Hungarians (27%) than French (28%) say they’d be better off outside the EU. After all, Orbán is the leader who is actually living Boris Johnson’s dream. He is having his European cake and eating it.

Hungary, a full member state of the EU, is no longer a democracy. Poland’s current leaders are bent on winning this autumn’s crucial election by hook or by crook, and continuing Orbánisation à la polonaise. In the Netherlands, where I just spent a delightful day for the publication of the Dutch edition of my personal history of Europe, a rural populist party threatens to upset the apple cart of Dutch politics after doing extremely well in provincial elections.

In Austria, the hard-right, anti-immigrant Freedom party is leading in opinion polls. Italy has a post-neofascist prime minister, even if she’s behaving rather responsibly on key European issues such as Ukraine and the eurozone. The mass protests in France do not bode well for the future of Emmanuel Macron’s liberal centre. Seasoned observers of French politics already suggest the most likely winner of the 2027 presidential election is Marine le Pen. While the overall EU27 average figures for trust in the EU are high, 57% of French respondents say they “tend not to trust” the EU.

And that’s before we get to the unprecedented external threats. The largest war in Europe since 1945. A dictators’ bromance between Xi Jinping and Putin. Other non-western powers such as India, Turkey, South Africa and Brazil maintaining good relations with Putin’s Russia, even though it is prosecuting a neocolonial war against Ukraine, with clear genocidal elements. A US that might go Trumpian again in next year’s presidential election, with or without Donald Trump. Global heating still heading up beyond 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, with consequences already playing out in extreme weather events; world population now exceeding 8 billion; huge inequalities between richer and poorer countries; all of the above contributing to migratory pressures which are then exploited by xenophobic populists in Europe. Oh yes, and a significant risk of an armed conflict between the US and China over Taiwan sometime this decade. Need I go on?

The state of this union is strong. But it will need to be a whole lot stronger to master these huge internal and external challenges.

The author’s Homelands: A Personal History of Europe is currently due to be published in at least 18 European languages

The war in Ukraine reminds us what the EU is for. But even bigger challenges lie ahead | Timothy Garton Ash

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