‘United in Diversity” is a good slogan for the European Union, at least the way its members would like it to be. For 22 years, this motto has adorned every official display of the EU, its brochures, promotional films, and its representatives say it wherever they appear. The beginning of the millennium was the time of the great rise of the EU, its maturing into a world superpower. In 2004, it absorbed its entire east, once a stronghold of the Soviet empire, making it its largest undertaking since its founding. With the entry of Bulgaria and Romania three years later, it stopped enlarging. Only Croatia succeeded in 2013 and only the Western Balkans remained at the door, so that the EU borders, as the EU projected itself, would be complete.
The glorious days of European expansion are long gone. Crises have been shaking the EU for years to such an extent that even its oldest and most influential members are openly being asked the question: Does the EU have a future at all? It first culminated with the financial crisis of 2008, which divided the EU into a creditor north and a debtor south.
The new culmination came with the wave of migrants from Asia and Africa in 2015, when on the first blow the common European regime for the reception of newcomers, prescribed by the Dublin Agreement, disintegrated. The new culmination of disunity came with COVID-19 and the chaotic closure of each member state. All this time, the EU has been searching for a consensus on how to respond to Russia’s aggressive behavior towards Georgia in 2008 and soon after Ukraine. The sanctions imposed on Moscow due to the annexation of Crimea did not bring the results, which is to restrain Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ambition to restore the former Soviet empire.
For years, the EU has not been an alliance that can effectively solve problems, not even within its ranks, much less outside its borders. The Balkans is a very good example. Left to the European soft hand after the civil wars of the 1990s, the region is still, a quarter of a century later, far from EU membership. “We have neglected the Balkans,” said sincerely Federica Mogherini, the then head of EU foreign policy, in one of her farewell speeches from the high position.
European disunity was both food and rocket fuel for the growth of Russia’s influence, wherever they competed, and above all on European soil. Not only was the weak Balkans a field for competition in imposing influence, but almost all members of the EU were, even those with the oldest and most stable democracy. Europeans were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the French presidential elections in 2017 because Russia’s destructive cyber operations had already won great success in the US presidential elections, and in part in the British referendum on remaining or withdrawing from the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory was a relief for the proponents of European unity, and then the victory of the pro-European coalition in the Netherlands, and finally a new mandate for Angela Merkel in the fall of the same year.
However, the EU remained conflicted, vulnerable and incapable of solving problems outside its borders with one voice, which is why it used to be a world champion. The tightening of relations with Russia, on the occasion of Ukraine, and at the same time the cooling of relations with America during Trump, made the EU “drilled” by toxic Russian influence, which seriously threatened its survival. Dependence on Russian gas, coupled with high corruption, has made some important levers of European unity practically in Russian hands.
In mid-February, Foreign Policy magazine reminded of the assortment of top European officials, who took over the highest positions in Russian mega-companies after the end of their mandate, mainly from the energy and mining sectors. “Schroederization,” as a term for such corrupt retirement, was given after the former German chancellor and his leading functions in the Nord Stream gas pipeline, and soon in the board of Gazprom.
There are also former French prime minister Francois Fillon as a board member of Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft and petrochemical giant Sibur, former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen as a Gazprom lobbyist, and a line of high-ranking Austrian conservatives who have maintained strong private ties with Putin.
With the decision to invade Ukraine, Putin estimated that a united response from Europe and the West would be lacking. He had many reasons for that, only a few are mentioned here. When (and not if) he is one day defeated in his Ukrainian invasion, he will find one of the most important reasons for his defeat in his failed long-term investment to produce and fuel divisions in the West.
THE UNITY with which the West responded to the invasion of Ukraine astonished the West itself, most of all Europeans. The traditionally slow and bureaucratically inefficient Brussels grew into a lightning first responder overnight, blocking the most important levers of Putin’s influence, primarily the finances of the state and its most influential individuals. This was followed by a ban on the use of European airspace, travel restrictions, and even the first approving of money and military equipment for Ukrainian defense in history. A huge 500 million euros have already gone from the EU to Kiev to finance their defense and according to Josep Borrell, the current EU foreign policy chief, over that amount, member states will send military equipment and even fighter jets.
Together with Britain, the US and non-European allies in the G-7 (Canada and Japan), Europe has achieved a unity overnight that it could only imagine in the past two decades. Putin’s aggression caused Switzerland to remove the eternal veil of its neutrality and block the accounts and affairs of Russian tycoons and the state. A third of world oil trade, half of world metal trade and 60% of sugar trade, for example, goes through Switzerland. Russia’s invasion has turned traditionally neutral Sweden into a fiery supporter of joining NATO, and it will be the first next member of the Alliance, if it is not surpassed by traditionally neutral Finland, which is also angry about Putin’s aggression. The fact that the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, threatened them that they would “bear the consequences” if they joined NATO, did not discourage them, but it accelerated them to make a historic decision.
Europe got this virus of unity largely through NATO, which was in a crisis of identity and internal functioning until the Russian invasion. It was particularly weakened by four years of torpedoing by Donald Trump.
After decades, we have heard anthological speeches from European speakers, instead of technocratic phrases. EU High Representative and Vice-President Borrell Borrell, for example, or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag, reminded us of the brightest days of Europe, when it was created and led by great leaders, who we thought were part of some distant history, like dinosaurs.
There is not a place where Russia and Putin are not isolated. The country was expelled from the Council of Europe, it was financially isolated from the international market, and a physical “cordon” was created around it by banning flights over the Continent. Its economy collapsed in two days, the ruble became worthless, and the state reserves of 630 billion dollars cannot be approached. Russia will not be at international football matches, not even at the Eurovision Song Contest. Nowhere.
Some doubts that existed, above all about the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT banking system, were removed overnight. None of Europe’s leaders, no matter how much they have had relations with the Kremlin, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán, for example, or for financial reasons, such as Ireland or Cyprus, have subordinated unity within their natural Western family because of those relations. When Germany, under Scholz, was able to make a 180-degree turn in relation to the legacy left by former German prime minister Angela Merkel and block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and especially to supply weapons to Ukraine, then no one else can find any excuses.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will fundamentally change geopolitical relations, primarily in Europe and Eurasia. One of the biggest changes will be the unity in Europe and among the Western partners, which has not been recorded since WWII. Putin will appear as a great unifier of the West and the free world in general, because with his tragic invasion of Ukraine, he called for his biggest nightmare. He will leave behind a permanently united West, which will no longer have anything to do with his Russia for sure, but also with any future Russia if it does not give up its quasi-imperial ambitions, which were instilled in it by its authoritarian leader.
The EU will emerge from the Ukrainian tragedy rejuvenated and strong, gathered around its fundamental values of peace in Europe and solidarity, which it has been unsuccessfully searching for years. It will go hand in hand with its natural allies the US and Britain, and perhaps extended to those areas around which it hesitated for too long, the Balkans, of course, and maybe Ukraine and Moldova. The destructive ambition of a lone autocrat to sow divisions in a democratic world he despises, turns into its complete opposite. Thanks to Putin, the democratic world gets a new historic chance and uses it in the best way.
The writer is founder and director of the Belgrade-based International Security Institute.