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The unprecedented sanctions package on Russia — tightening by the day, and possibly soon to include coal, oil and gas exports which would bite even more firmly; a €100 billion support package to Ukraine, including lethal aid run through an EU hub in Poland — are the types of response that foreign policy analysts could only dream of just weeks ago.
The broad definition of security, central to this week’s meeting of leaders of EU countries in Versailles, underlined that something fundamental has shifted in their understanding of the need to work together in a threatening world.
But a new survey, commissioned by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in January 2022, suggests that European leaders’ hesitancy on collective defence of their strategic interests — and values — up until the watershed moment of the Russian invasion, may have been largely down to a gross underestimation of European public support for a deepening of security co-operation.
This misunderstanding on the part of European policymakers had a high cost. Putin has been testing for years the extent to which the EU was prepared to stand up to defend the post-cold war order, and indeed the rule of law within the EU. His annexation of Crimea, the murder of Litvinenko and the attacks on the Skripals, the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny are some of the highest-profile examples of this process.
But behind the scenes, Europeans’ vulnerability to cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and interference in online election debates were also key elements of this picture. His calculation was that on the basis of low levels reactions from the Europeans on these tests, there wouldn’t be a strong reaction to his invasion of Ukraine. And now we have war in Europe again.
The tragedy within a tragedy is that the European public seems to have shared Putin’s assessment that European security cooperation is not yet strong enough to withstand the threats they are concerned about.
Even in the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when our survey took place, a plurality of respondents endorsed the need for European cooperation to guarantee security at their borders and to tackle future pandemics.
But when we asked how they felt about the EU’s response to Russia’s involvement in eastern Europe (Ukraine and Belarus) so far, a majority had negative feelings.
The largest answer was fearful (31%) but 15% were angry and 11% sad. It appears that if fear of lack of domestic political support was what was holding them back, Europe’s leaders could have moved faster than they did in their sanctions to warn Putin that the consequences of entering Ukraine would be severe.
The response to the Russian attack on Ukraine is a live test of European sovereignty and our ability to protect the European way of life. But European voters also seem to believe that defending the international rule of law — the very system that Putin is attacking — has to begin at home.
When asked what action should be taken against EU member states who violate democracy and rule of law, majorities agreed with each of the tough responses we offered. 61% believe that the EU should have the power to publicly criticise governments (61%), 58% support withholding structural funds from the member state concerned, 52% supported their voting rights in the European Council. Our credibility in asking Putin to play by the rules is undermined by an inability for all member states to play by them within the EU, and likely added to his sense that invading Ukraine would be a swift and relatively uncontested operation. If we break our own EU acquis, how could we make a fuss about him disregarding international law?
In these dark times, there is however a silver lining. Though later than it could have been, the EU’s tough stance since the invasion on 24 February seems likely to have reinforced Europeans’ view that the EU is their best bet in a frightening world. Though 58% believed their national political system was not working, and large majorities believed that international cooperation was not delivering on global goods — 71% on climate, and 60% on coronavirus — support for the EU remains high. 59% of Europeans support their country’s continued membership of the EU-27. In 10 of the 12 surveyed member states, too, the prevailing view is that the EU system works.
Though lamentably late to show what it was capable of, the EU now has a chance to double down on deepening security cooperation in order to demonstrate to Putin that the costs of his cruel and unjustified war will be too high and to shape the post-war order that emerges.
Susi Dennison leads the European Power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.