Ukraine’s fight for freedom exposes ‘sovereign Europe’ as a delusion

The writer is associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of ‘European Disunion’

We all believe in sovereignty now — but in ways which are often incompatible. Ukrainians fight for their national independence, and by doing so prove their ability to act as a truly sovereign people. By contrast, calls for a more sovereign Europe, led by President Emmanuel Macron of France, remain elusive in nature, exposing the limits of the EU’s power vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The shared outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine initially strengthened European unity. But the challenges that the war has generated appear to be reinforcing European disunion. Central and eastern European states, with the notable exception of Hungary, strongly support Ukraine’s fight for territorial integrity, while Germany, France and Italy seek ways to accommodate Russia.

For the EU, the return of sovereignty is unexpected. European integration supposedly made nation states increasingly obsolete. Dialogue, not threats of violence, would uphold peace. Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, was the high priest of this faith.

Rather than enemies, Europeans thought they had partners, competitors or at worst rivals. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced an abrupt re-evaluation of this view. The most confusing and confused response has come from Europe’s most post-sovereign nation — Germany. This is not surprising. The spectacular success of the post-1945 reconstruction of democracy in Germany is intimately linked with the rejection of militarisation and a strong commitment to Europeanisation.

German political elites struggle to think strategically, because for decades their only strategy consisted of a simple dictum: whatever challenge Germany faces, Europe is the answer. Yet to invoke Europe like some religious incantation is no longer enough. And being in denial about national interests doesn’t mean that a country has none, as we have seen in Germany’s dogged pursuit of its energy policies.

It was once a truism that France needed the EU to conceal its weakness, while Germany needed it to hide its strength. In relation to Russia, one could argue that Germany uses the EU’s relative weakness to justify its own inaction. This is not to deny the significance of the far-reaching economic sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia, or the novelty of financing weapons exports to Ukraine. The EU also seems earnest in its financial commitment to the reconstruction of Ukraine.

But when it comes to assisting Ukraine in the war itself, it is national capitals that matter, not Brussels. What Moscow wants and many of Putin’s western supporters appear willing to accept is the division of Europe into spheres of influence. This is redolent of the Grossraum thinking articulated by the crown jurist of Nazi Germany, Carl Schmitt: a theory of large economic spaces controlled by major powers.

Even Habermas indirectly endorses such a vision by suggesting that Russia, as a nuclear power, cannot be defeated. German chancellor Olaf Scholz echoes such arguments when he declares that “Russia must not win this war”, rather than unambiguously advocating a Ukrainian victory. This is as logical as it is misguided. Where there are no enemies, there can be no victors.

By contrast, leaders in central and eastern Europe are not afraid to combine the language of values with power politics. The French and German visions for peace imply Ukrainian territorial concessions. Such ideas are foolhardy and will not ensure security for Europe or Ukraine. A sovereign Europe must not be pursued at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.

The task of understanding Ukrainian interests comes easier to politicians who never abandoned the language of national sovereignty. It was no accident that the first foreign speaker to address the Ukrainian parliament in person since the invasion was the Polish president Andrzej Duda. Welcoming him, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine stressed the brotherhood of the two nations and their ability to “distinguish enemies and appreciate friends”.

Duda in turn praised “a free, independent and sovereign Ukraine” and its “friendship with a free, sovereign and independent Poland”. He stated what should be a self-evident objective, but does not seem so in Paris and Berlin: “Ukraine will win the war.”

In fact, for Europe to have a future in freedom, Ukraine must win this defining battle of our times. The losers will include not just Putin’s Russia. The defeat of Russian imperialism should finally put to rest Franco-German delusions, whether they aim at a sovereign or a post-national Europe.

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