European citizens have been pivotal in ensuring that their governments help Ukraine defend itself against Russian military aggression.
Germany’s leaders have often seemed more fearful than the public. Yet, under pressure from citizens, they have slowly and belatedly begun to stand up to Russia. There are some exceptions to this trend. For instance, Italians have generally been more dovish than their leaders. But, even in Italy, pressure to assist Ukraine from at least some voters seems to have shaped government action – while most other citizens appear to have acquiesced.
In early March, shortly after Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine, this author warned that European solidarity with Ukraine could falter once citizens began to feel the economic impact of the war. After all, as Albert Hirschman observed, voters are customers too – and they always need to balance their “shifting involvements” between public action and private interest.
In Germany, support for an embargo on Russian gas has already started to evaporate, according to a recent poll. And the coalition government in Italy may soon collapse, as the Five Star Movement – whose leader has criticised weapon deliveries to Ukraine and called for negotiations with Russia – has threatened to boycott a confidence vote.
Judging by a recent ECFR public opinion poll, rising energy and food prices could lead more Europeans to falsely believe that making concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin could mean a quicker end to the war. Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, who authored the analysis of the poll, point to the importance of effective political messaging to maintain a broad front of solidarity with Ukraine.
Yet there is another pending risk for sustaining European solidarity with Ukraine. In the holiday period, Europeans will simply have less time, patience, and attention to dedicate to following the war – and to keeping their leaders in check.
Most Europeans who can afford a summer of relaxation would like to escape the dual stresses of covid-19 and the war. And they are perfectly within their rights to do so. Of course, higher prices of fuel and airline tickets will not let them entirely forget the conflict raging on the edge of the continent. But many Europeans will be spending time at the beach, playing with their children, or enjoying drinks with friends – and, as a result, spending less time following the news or joining rallies to support Ukraine.
The decline in public pressure on European governments could lead to a slowdown in the military and political support they provide to Kyiv. A similar effect could occur with declarations of solidarity and support for Ukraine, given that political leaders themselves will likely take holidays, too – and that, in July and August, there are relatively few international meetings at which to make such statements.
The worst-case scenario is that Putin uses the summer to launch a decisive offensive against Ukraine. If he is successful, Europeans returning from holiday – recharged by the sun, and often with the best intentions to support Ukraine’s struggle – could find that it is too late to respond.
Therefore, decision-makers should not allow themselves to relax too much this summer. Instead, they should maintain pressure on Russia and provide immediate support to Ukraine. Citizens might prove pivotal in ensuring this happens. They could try several ‘life hacks’ to sustain support for Ukraine in the long run. The challenge they are facing is how to continue helping Ukrainians and, at the same time, use the summer to rest and recover.
Those who care about both goals should try to define limits on the extent to which Ukraine is the focus of their everyday thoughts and activities. Otherwise, they risk either spending their holidays ‘doom scrolling’ or feeling guilty about cutting themselves off from the issue too much. For example, they could check the news once in the morning and once in the evening without sacrificing a great deal of the time they dedicate to family and friends. From the comfort of their sun loungers, they could also participate in crowdfunding campaigns to supply Bayraktar drones to Ukraine – or coordinate remotely with family and friends to help Ukrainian refugees find homes and work in their communities. In the place where they spend their holiday, they could attend local political meetings to discuss how their country should help Ukraine.
Moreover, summer gatherings present an opportunity to redirect discussions with family and friends away from comments about the sheer horror of the war and complaints about the rising cost of living, and towards more creative ideas about what people like them, and their countries, could do to help Ukraine. Citizens could also reduce their energy consumption to help prepare for a winter without Russian gas – an area in which governments can provide leadership and advice.
These gestures should not become all-consuming. However, it is important to find ways to continue supporting Ukraine despite the holidays – and not just for the country at war. This could also reduce Europeans’ feelings of powerlessness and sustain their morale, despite the gloomy prospects of most European economies. Without continued public engagement, political support for Ukraine could soon begin to drain away. Europeans need to recognise that their position on the Ukrainian tragedy, and their interest in it, have consequences.
Too many people cannot take a break from this war. Many Ukrainians are fighting; millions are seeking refuge. Yet Europeans need not follow the news about the war relentlessly to be able to help. In fact, they probably should not do so. If Europeans are to maintain their solidarity and support for Ukraine throughout a protracted conflict, they will need to be careful not to burn out. Otherwise, genuine interest in the disaster may give way to fatigue and then indifference – much in the same way as it has with covid-19.
At the same time, Europeans cannot afford to forget about Ukraine. They need to remain vigilant and active – even as they bask in the sun.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.