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Federico Ottavio Reho is strategic coordinator and senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Anne Blanksma Çeta is a former principal researcher at Glocalities. Martijn Lampert is research director at Glocalities.
With the decision to illegally annex Ukrainian territories, mobilize reservists and intensify nuclear threats, Russian President Vladimir Putin also aims to intimidate Europeans and break their unity in support of Ukraine.
Putin is betting that growing nationalist resentment among the bloc will blame higher energy prices on out-of-touch globalist elites in Brussels. But we believe that this gamble fundamentally misjudges the long-term trend in growing EU support — though exactly what that represents may be changing.
From the starting point of a post-nationalist project of free markets and open borders, the EU is increasingly developing into a multi-level shield under which member countries work closely together to protect their citizens against geopolitical instability — and Putin’s ongoing threats and aggression are only accelerating the change.
This substantial shift in the nature of EU support was captured in our public survey of more than 5,000 Europeans, conducted by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in cooperation with the global values research agency Glocalities earlier this year.
First, Russia’s invasion has made Europeans increasingly supportive of defense spending and EU military cooperation. The war has also revitalized the bloc’s founding narrative as a community of values and a peace project, which many believed had lost traction after decades of peaceful development.
The demand for unity against external threats extends to other policy domains, such as climate and the economy, as well — and this precedes the war in Ukraine. Climate change is one of the top three EU policy concerns in all surveyed countries. And when it comes to the economy, protecting citizens from “unfair economic competition” from outside the EU, and regulating markets to grant workers and consumers adequate protection, emerge as Europeans’ two most important long-term goals.
This is a sea change from the EU’s once common identification with openness tout court, and a sign that the widespread slogans about “A Europe that protects” have indeed taken hold — for better or worse. This growing momentum for European unity has also coincided with the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe, as well important proposals for both policy and institutional reform.
However, this widely felt need for stronger EU unity and global action shouldn’t be mistaken for a blank check in favor of the bloc’s centralization across the board, as some advocates of a “United States of Europe” are inclined to do.
As recent gains made by national conservative parties in the recent elections in Sweden and Italy underline, in terms of EU integration, this isn’t a return to the “permissive consensus” of yore — even if the main nationalist and euroskeptic leaders are no longer seriously advocating leaving the EU and are actively distancing themselves from Putin, someone they’d often considered a role model in the past.
Rather, the results of our survey show that the desire for increased external unity against common threats corresponds to an equally strong demand for respecting the EU’s internal diversity.
When it comes to the economy, for example, there remains very strong opposition in northwestern EU countries to a looming transfer union. Serious concerns about climate change are also counterbalanced by fears of rising living costs and decreasing willingness, by large part of the population, to pay higher energy prices for a green transition. And even behind the seeming consensus on EU values and support for the protection of the rule of law in all member states — including Hungary and Poland — hides important differences between, and within, countries.
These disagreements concern important matters, such as how far EU rule of law and fundamental rights should extend to encompass controversial moral issues, like refugee policies and family values — e.g., LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. Centralized EU decision-making and policy activism on each of these flashpoints of internal division is likely to backfire and might jeopardize EU credibility and efficacy on vital topics on which the bloc’s citizens are much more united.
Since the eurozone crisis, the EU’s future has all too often been framed as a choice between ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe, between the competing visions of EU federalists and populist nationalists. Yet, of all things, the war in Ukraine should have showed us how this is increasingly at odds with reality.
The “Kyiv moment” has confirmed that EU membership can also act and be seen as a guarantor of national identity and independence. In fact, our findings show that all countries bordering Russia share the same pattern: high levels of national pride hand in hand with high levels of EU trust.
This could finally mark the end of the “Brexit moment,” when secession from the bloc was presented as the only way to assert national independence. But for this to happen, the EU must not only stand united, but it must also respect diversity.
On the one hand, the EU needs to resist Putin’s energy blackmail, develop real defense capabilities, as well as an ability to use its still significant economic clout as a responsible geopolitical force. On the other hand, it should restrain its centralizing impulses on matters that are best left to national democratic debate, respecting diversity on controversial issues of “morality policy” and striking a realistic balance between an ambitious European Green Deal and people’s readiness to pay for it.
Fundamentally, the EU’s ability to rise as a geopolitical power will depend on whether European leaders can strike a balance between respect for the cultural diversity and identity of its members, and the drive to unite and protect the European way of life based on peace, democracy and freedom. And for this, the EU should seize this moment to move beyond the “more” vs. “less” Europe debate and articulate a strong model of unity that protects the integrity and autonomy of its members.