War in Ukraine: A resilience test for European solidarity

Europe has been united in its solidarity with Ukraine. To ensure this continues, the EU needs to support member states through the challenging times ahead and shield them from actors who may wish to sow discord.

Euromaidan in Kiev

“We know ourselves only as far as we’ve been tested.” Most Poles recognise this line from a poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

Today, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europeans face a test of their solidarity. Time will tell what this will teach them about themselves – but, as things stand, their performance at both the political and societal levels has been exemplary.

European governments and institutions have reacted boldly and swiftly, imposing massive sanctions on the Russian economy. They have also sent military aid to Ukraine and have even raised the prospect of the country’s accession to the European Union – with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in”.

The mobilisation of European citizens merits equal attention. In less than a week, Poland alone welcomed more than 500,000 Ukrainian refugees, with thousands of ordinary Poles involved in helping them: hosting them in their own houses, transporting them through the country, and sending aid to those who stayed in Ukraine. And, on 27 February, several hundred thousand people gathered in Berlin to protest against the Russian invasion. Similar rallies took place in towns and cities across Europe.

Europeans, then, are showing that their solidarity is not merely theoretical. As demonstrated by a survey ECFR conducted in January 2022 in seven EU countries (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Sweden), many Europeans have been eager to come to Ukraine’s aid in the event of Russian aggression since before the invasion. This was especially the case in Poland, where 62 per of respondents wanted to assist Ukraine even if it meant that a large number of refugees would cross the border. Today, they are showing that they meant it. Faced with the reality of war, more than 90 per cent of Poles currently say they want to help people displaced from Ukraine.

Some EU member states are radically re-evaluating their policies in response to the war. Germany leads the way on this. The country has surprised many observers by halting Nord Stream 2, sending arms to Ukraine, and announcing a large rise in defence spending. Germany is even reconsidering its decision to shut down all its nuclear power plants. But things are also changing elsewhere. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently admitted that it was imprudent for his country to rely so heavily on Russian gas imports and called for the EU to develop common energy storage capacities. Austria – which used to serve as a gateway to Europe for Russian businesses – has reacted firmly despite its exposure to the consequences of Western sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, in France, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression was condemned even by his traditional supporters, far-right presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. So far so good.

At stake here is Europe’s capacity to continue supporting Ukraine if the war lasts several months or years

However, Putin’s war in Ukraine and Western economic sanctions on Russia will certainly have negative effects on the European economy. Currently, the EU imports around 40 per cent of its gas from Russia, according to Eurostat. In the event of an escalation in which Russia cuts off its gas supplies to Europe, there would be energy shortages across the continent. As Russia and Ukraine account for roughly 30 per cent of the world’s wheat exports, the conflict is already translating into a rise in international wheat prices. This will only add to the inflationary pressure in Europe created by the pandemic. Furthermore, the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine is set to grow – perhaps to seven million in the event of a long-lasting conflict, according to the EU’s crisis commissioner, Janez Lenarcic.

Unsurprisingly, some politicians are already trying to seed doubts about European commitments. In France, for example, Le Pen has warned that sanctions should not hurt French citizens’ purchasing power. And Zemmour wants Ukrainian refugees to stay in Poland: “It is not good to take people away from their country like this – to destabilise France, which is already overwhelmed by immigration,” he argued in a recent interview. In Przemysl, a Polish city near the Ukrainian border, members of the far right have recently attacked ethnic-minority Ukrainian refugees.

In Poland and other European countries, there has been a large rise in Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine. The longer the conflict lasts, the easier it will become for such disinformation to gain traction. Indeed, as voters begin to feel the economic consequences of sanctions and grow more fearful that EU countries could be drawn into the war, the current near-consensus will become more vulnerable. The discussion about Ukraine’s accession to the EU could also easily become overheated, providing Eurosceptics with a perfect opportunity to spread fear among voters.

Therefore, to sustain today’s solidarity, the EU should most of all prepare its institutions to deal with long-term disruption. Firstly, it needs to build solidarity mechanisms to offset the costs of EU sanctions for member states and help them maintain their energy supplies: as others have noted, public support for sanctions can only be sustained if all 27 are reassured that their energy needs will be met. The EU should also support Poland and other central European member states that are currently hosting the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees. And member states need to develop institutional solutions too, as Ukrainian refugees cannot rely indefinitely on public goodwill and NGOs alone.

To maintain solidarity, the EU will also need to treat the concerns of European citizens seriously. Currently, they may feel helpless in the face of the horror they see live-streamed round the clock in the media. They do not need to be fooled into believing that the war will have no impact on their lives. But, still, they need to be reassured that European governments are prepared to do whatever it takes to cushion that impact. On 2 March, French President Emmanuel Macron did just that: he prepared his compatriots for the economic consequences of war, while reassuring them that the French state would protect them in these difficult times. Citizens may also appreciate advice on how they can assist Ukraine – to stop them from feeling helpless. For example, governments could encourage them to turn down their thermostats and thereby consume less energy – as an individual act of solidarity with the country that might prove crucial in the event of energy shortages.

At stake here is Europe’s capacity to continue supporting Ukraine if the war lasts several months or years. Sooner or later, public acceptance of such an intense effort could falter – limiting the EU’s capacity to conduct the value-based foreign policy that, in times of peace, Europeans expect from their leaders. Some politicians will try to feed off the resulting sense of insecurity, offering the illusion of neutrality and the possibility of insulating oneself from the consequences of war. They should not be given an opportunity to flourish.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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