European feelings were tested by the Ukraine war. Don’t be fooled – they’re still going strong
The Europeans proved their challengers wrong. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, European governments and citizens have shown solidarity with Ukraine and unity within their own ranks.
This strong European sentiment will be tested in the coming months. But it’s not just Russian disinformation, the cost of living, or migration concerns that could undermine them.
The collective response of the EU and Member States to Russia’s war will influence the attitudes of citizens within Europe and Europe’s image abroad.
To what extent they affirm or undermine European values will determine their credibility and legitimacy.
No place for retreat
According to recent opinion polls, the European public is strongly attached to Europe and optimistic about the future of the EU.
The governments of most EU member states are clearly pro-European – with the exception of Hungary (and mixed embassies from Poland and Bulgaria).
Over the past year, the governments of four countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Slovakia and Slovenia – have shown growing ties with Europe.
Meanwhile, in only one country (Bulgaria) has the government become more skeptical about the benefits of the European project.
The European Sentiment Compass – a joint initiative of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) – examines how Europe is responding to the challenges that Russia’s war against Ukraine poses to European values.
The results should encourage EU and Member State leaders to rethink the way they talk and think about Europe.
The “European feeling” was put to the test
When asked how Europe should help them, Ukrainian officials usually demand guns and ammunition.
Understandably, only military equipment makes an immediate difference on the battlefield.
But the longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the more important it becomes to ensure that European support remains acceptable to European citizens and compelling to Ukrainians.
This requires a strong “European feeling”, to borrow a phrase from Robert Schuman, one of the architects of post-1945 European integration.
EU and Member State leaders broadly acknowledge the risks related to Russian disinformation, the growing cost of living crisis and migration concerns among Europeans.
These could indeed have a profound impact on European sentiment and hence European support for Ukraine. It is good that EU and Member State leaders are taking action to counter these threats.
Could Russia undermine European unity?
However, it underestimates how Russian culture, media and citizens could also undermine European sentiment.
In this respect, the heads of state and government of the EU and the Member States face various dilemmas.
As a sign of solidarity with Ukraine, should they limit the presence of Russian culture in their countries? Should they take action against Russian media in the EU27?
Should they impose a travel ban on all Russian citizens? Should they hold the Russians collectively responsible for the war?
Or could they see Russian and Belarusian citizens and cultural actors as allies to stop the war and change these countries for the better?
Europe has a strong culture of resistance
How EU and Member State leaders respond to these dilemmas can either justify or refute their image – both in the eyes of their own citizens and in the wider world.
Europe can prove trustworthy, peaceful and strong. Or it can provide arguments for those who claim it is hypocritical, aggressive, and weak.
To avoid the latter scenario, EU and national leaders need to regain confidence in liberalism and in their own citizens.
First, they have to be very careful when dealing with Russian culture in Europe.
As long as the war continues, there should be no place in Europe for Russian artists who are in any way connected to the Russian state.
That being said, however, saying that all Russian culture should be put on hold – as some in Kyiv and in the more combative EU member states have suggested – goes a long way.
Second, the EU and its member states should show that they are a place where a pluralistic debate can take place.
Focusing too much on banning Russian media and chasing fake news puts Europe on the defensive.
Instead of just complaining about Russian propaganda and resorting to measures that may seem like censorship, Europe should be ready to engage in and win the narrative battle.
We should avoid black and white thinking
Finally, European leaders should resist the black-and-white rhetoric – and instead see the people as allies.
They should recognize that not all Russians share the same responsibility for the war in Ukraine and that Belarusian citizens are not the same as Lukashenka’s regime.
In fact, many Russian and Belarusian citizens could prove useful allies in ending the war in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is testing Europe’s commitment to openness, diversity, freedom, solidarity and personal responsibility.
It is not just Europe’s image in the eyes of the world and Europeans themselves that is at stake.
Also, the unity of Europe and the continent’s support for Ukraine.
André Wilkens is director of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) in Amsterdam. Paweł Zerka is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of the European Sentiment Compass.
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