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"There is a European identity"

The EU is standing close together in the war against Ukraine. The political scientist Tanja Börzel explains what this means for the future of Europe.

Carsten Hauptmeier, 05.05.2022
The political scientist Tanja Börzel of the Free University of Berlin
The political scientist Tanja Börzel of the Free University of Berlin © Katty Otto

In the face of Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine, the EU states are more united and determined than ever before. Shortly before Europe Day on 9 May, we spoke with the political scientist Tanja Börzel of the Free University of Berlin about how lasting she thinks this unity will be and what challenges Europe is facing. The director of the Cluster of Excellence "Contestations of the Liberal Script" calls on Germany and other states to mobilise the pro-European majority of citizens more strongly

Professor Börzel, the European Union came into being after the Second World War to secure peace. What does the war in Ukraine mean for Europe?

It’s often forgotten that the European Union began as a peace project. It is right to remind people of this. The European Union is too often reduced to mere market integration. In recent years, there has been the assessment that the EU, if not surrounded by a ring of democratic states, is bordered by stable countries that don’t wage war. That is why many people didn’t expect the Ukraine war.

But the European Union then reacted very quickly and unitedly to the Russian war of aggression. Did this unity surprise you?

It was surprising that the EU found a unified position so quickly. Russia's President Vladimir Putin certainly didn’t count on the Union reaching agreement so quickly on sanctions. Because it’s true that the EU is often perceived as very disunited, especially in foreign and security policy. We mustn’t forget, however, that in the past the member states have acted in unison time and again – for example, in overcoming the euro crisis or in the reconstruction programme adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. It isn’t the case that the Union is permanently divided.

Do you expect the cohesion triggered by the Ukraine war to last?

Crises often heighten our awareness that we are all in the same boat and can achieve more together. But I’m sceptical whether this cohesion will last beyond the crisis. I expect old conflicts to erupt again sooner or later. What worries me most are the social costs of the sanctions that have now been resolved upon. Because higher energy costs and rising food prices hit above all socially weaker sections of the population. And this is exactly the electoral clientele that anti-democratic parties appeal to. When the crisis becomes smaller, at least in terms of its perception, and the costs become more visible, populist forces will address it more and more and use it to mobilise this part of the population in elections.

What could help to prevent this?

On the one hand, it’s a matter of cushioning social hardship. But here the EU has only limited possibilities; there won’t be a Europe-wide welfare state any time soon. With the coronavirus reconstruction programme, however, it was possible for the member states to take on debt jointly. That was a huge step. I could imagine Germany and France working towards expanding this mechanism to cushion the social costs of the sanctions against Russia.

In France, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected president. Before the election, he set out on a decidedly pro-European course. How important still is Franco-German cooperation for Europe?

History shows that when Germany and France work together, Europe moves forward. This is all the more true since Britain has left the EU. The further development of the European Union depends very much on this leadership duo.

Is there sufficient willingness among the citizens to strengthen the EU?

Among the population, support for the EU as a whole remains strong. But the attitudes of those who, like the right-wing populists, reject an open and tolerant Europe won’t be changed even by the Russian war of aggression. It’s therefore a matter of mobilising the pro-European majority. There has long been a European identity. The pro-European and pro-democratic forces must not leave the stage to the anti-European and anti-democratic populists.

And how can this pro-European majority be mobilised?

We have to remind them of the values that hold Europe together. In Ukraine, our liberal values are being defended. And people in Europe are ready to take to the streets for democracy and freedom and to take in refugees from Ukraine.

As far as the EU is concerned, politicians should stop claiming successes as national achievements and blaming developments that are perceived as negative on the EU. We also have to argue openly about Europe. There’s always the fear that this could make things worse. But I believe we should discuss what kind of Europe we want and why we are defending it. Then we will also no longer leave the field to the anti-European forces.