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Ukraine’s War Has Finally Made Europe a Home

Russia’s invasion has made Europeans more emotionally attached to the continent than ever before.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Flags of the European Union countries are gathered together ahead of the EU enlargement ceremony April 30, 2004 in Dublin, Ireland.
Flags of the European Union countries are gathered together ahead of the EU enlargement ceremony April 30, 2004 in Dublin, Ireland.
Flags of the European Union countries are gathered together ahead of the EU enlargement ceremony April 30, 2004 in Dublin, Ireland. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

In The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu argued that one of the main elements binding the Dutch provinces together was their resistance to the Spanish crown. Likewise, what unified Swiss cantons was resistance to the Holy Roman Empire.

In The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu argued that one of the main elements binding the Dutch provinces together was their resistance to the Spanish crown. Likewise, what unified Swiss cantons was resistance to the Holy Roman Empire.

A similar process is now underway in Europe as a result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

In the latest Eurobarometer poll, released in January, 72 percent of citizens living in the European Union said that their country’s membership in the EU is beneficial. That is the highest score in a long time—the Eurobarometer has been asking the same question since 2005. In 2010, just 50 percent of Europeans thought their country benefited from EU membership. Since then, slowly but steadily, the percentage has been creeping up, until it plateaued at 72 percent in 2020. Inversely, today 22 percent say their country does not benefit from membership. In 2010, that was almost twice as much, at 39 percent.

Clearly, something interesting is happening here. Geopolitical turbulence—mostly caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine and its direct and indirect fallout—is putting the EU under severe strain. It has forced the 27 member states to argue about sanctions, weapons deliveries, and many other difficult issues. At the same time, this situation has seemed to unleash forces in the opposite direction, too. A poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations this week also showed that in Europe, the war is increasingly seen not as an attack on a neighboring country but as an assault on an entire continent.

National politicians still regularly complain about the loss of national sovereignty, and political commentators frequently predict the implosion of a hopelessly divided EU. Yet more and more European citizens think the EU is good for them. And they do not define the European interest just in economic terms anymore. Here, too, a fundamental shift is underway. Europeans used to tell pollsters that the benefit of their country’s EU membership was mainly economic. Another positive aspect, they said, was that it fostered cooperation between their country and others in Europe. Nowadays, with war in Ukraine raging, a different benefit suddenly appears on the list: the fact that the EU “contributes to maintaining peace and strengthening security.” Thirty-six percent of Europeans now think this is one of the main benefits of EU membership, which is 6 percentage points more than the year before. In a country such as the Netherlands, which, like the United Kingdom, has always emphasized the economic benefits of membership and downplayed the others, it is even 13 points higher than the year before. In Sweden and Germany, a similar shift is visible. It is telling that even northern countries that have preferred to consider Europe as a market have now started to look at the EU as a security provider.

In 2013, during his state-of-Europe speech in Berlin, former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy observed that, over the years, Europe had turned into a space “allowing goods, services, and capital to circulate freely, allowing persons to travel freely.” Drawing on the works of the French philosopher Michel de Certeau, he noted, however, that much less attention has been paid to Europe as a place. “For Europe to become a place, to feel more like a home, our union must be able, if not to protect people, at the very least to respect the places of protection and belonging.”

Now, 10 years later, this transformation of the EU from a space to a place seems well under way: From a space to roam around and explore diversity and freedom, it is turning into a place where citizens want to feel safe and at home. For the past several years, Kai Gehring, a professor of political economy at the University of Bern, has studied European identity. In a report published last year, he described how a stronger European identity was emerging, one “associated with higher trust in EU institutions and support for common policies.”

But this raises the question of what holds together a common identity when it is comprised of various heterogeneous groups. It is often assumed that citizens mainly identify with smaller, close-knit groups; the larger the group, even if formed voluntarily, the weaker the common identity. Yet the most important units of political and economic organization today are much larger. The EU is just one example.  But in Europe’s case, for Gehring, the answer was becoming clear: a common external threat.

His research builds on the balance-of-power theory, which holds that when faced with a powerful adversary, less powerful states will attempt to balance against it by cooperating or integrating. This theory is often used to help explain both the origins of European integration in the 1950s (helped by the communist threat) and the growth of Euroskepticism among national administrations and the public at large in the post-Cold War years (as a result of the disappearance of that threat).

Gehring tested this mechanism for the EU after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and found that the identification with the larger group had already significantly increased. He noted that this European identity, as he called it, had nothing to do with citizens’ rational calculations, nor with the fact that they now know more about Europe. On the contrary, the identification with Europe was emotional—“an unconscious, psychological response rather than a rational one.” It is stable and does not disappear immediately. This would help explain why trust in European institutions is rising, why citizens attach more importance to European values than before and become more positive about common policies such as the issuance of common EU debt or a European minimum wage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and Brexit supporters thought they could undermine or even destroy the EU by bullying it. The opposite seems to have happened. Far-right populist leaders such as France’s Marine Le Pen or Italy’s Matteo Salvini no longer call for exits from the EU.

Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president for values and transparency, recently admitted she had been “scared” of Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his negative influence on the European parliamentary election in 2019. Now, those fears are gone. Jourova thinks that in 2024, when European voters go to the polls again, they will vote for established, more moderate parties because “the people now see, especially in the time of crisis, it’s not the time for [populist] experiments.”

This article appears in the Spring 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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