Peace Versus Justice: The Coming European Split Over the War in Ukraine

Written by | Sunday, June 26th, 2022

In the weeks and months since the invasion of Ukraine, Europeans have surprised both Vladimir Putin – and themselves – by their unity and decisiveness. Post-heroic European societies outraged by Russia’s aggression, and mesmerized by Ukrainians’ valor, provided the motivating force for Europe’s unexpected turn. They inspired their governments to adopt change on a historic scale; they opened their homes to millions of Ukrainians; they demanded tough economic sanctions; and they forced Western companies to leave Russia as quickly as possible. While previous “European moments” were marked by the European flag mobilizing people beyond the borders of the European Union (including in Ukraine), this time the Ukrainian flag mobilized people within the EU. Europeans have discovered that they are a more serious force than they previously thought. Distinguished commentator Moises Naim has argued, “Europe discovered that it’s a superpower”. But, as the war approaches its fifth month, will European unity last? Or will cracks start to emerge between and within EU countries?

The European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a pan-European opinion poll across ten countries to find answers to these questions. The poll was conducted in mid-May – at a time when citizens had had a chance to absorb the shock of the invasion. The public debate was turning away from events on the battlefield and towards questions of how the conflict will end, as well as its impact on people’s lives, on their countries, and on the EU. It was also a moment when Europeans were becoming much more aware of the global economic and social consequences of the war: high inflation, and energy and food crises. This poll measures European publics’ resilience rather than just their anger at Putin’s war.

The approximately 8,000 people polled came from across Europe. The countries surveyed were Poland and Romania – frontline, traditionally Russia-sceptic, states in central Europe; France, Germany, and Italy – large western European states that previously earned reputations as Russlandverstehers (“Russia understanders”); Portugal and Spain – southern European states that have in the past generally been less involved in Russia policy; Finland and Sweden – northern European states that are applying for NATO membership as a result of the invasion; and Great Britain.

The findings of the poll suggest that European public opinion is shifting, and that the toughest days may lie ahead. The resilience of European democracies will mostly depend on the capacity of governments to sustain public support for policies that will ultimately bring pain to different social groups. This will force governments to balance the pursuit of European unity behind pressure on Moscow with opinions that diverge both inside and among member states. The survey reveals a growing gap between the stated positions of many European governments and the public mood in their countries. The big looming divide is between those who want to end the war as quickly as possible and those who want to carry on fighting until Russia has been defeated.

War is like a rollercoaster: public opinion can change with every twist and turn, and it is also a hugely powerful driver. As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times wrote recently, “The war in Ukraine is essentially being fought on three fronts and among three protagonists. The first front is the battlefield itself. The second front is economic. The third front is the battle of wills. The three participants are Russia, Ukraine and the western alliance backing Ukraine.” What happens on any of the three fronts affects the other two. Ukraine’s military successes are critical for bolstering the size of the Justice camp (whose informal leader, Zelensky, has an uncanny ability to communicate with European publics). Supporters of the Peace camp are already the biggest group among European citizens and will probably rise in number if feeling grows that the fierce economic sanctions on Russia are failing to bring results.

So, what do this new survey’s findings say about the ongoing battle of wills, and how to sustain support for the measures taken to arm Ukraine and sanction Russia? Ukraine’s dependence on the actions of its European neighbors means that who wins this battle of wills is likely to be even more important than what takes place on the economic and military terrains. The next few weeks will be critical and the data show that it should be possible to keep Europe together with the right political messaging.The poll suggests that Europe’s break with Russia is irreversible, at least in the short and medium term. There is no chance now that Europeans are dreaming of integrating Russia into their own structures or political community. They seem to be looking towards a world in which Europe decouples from Russia entirely.

But the European consensus on Russia does not automatically translate into a common position on what roles the EU should play in the war. The data herald a growing divergence between the Peace camp and the Justice camp as the war drags on and the costs associated with it grow. The survey exposes potential divisions over refugees, Ukraine’s EU accession, the impact on living standards, and the threat of nuclear escalation. These combine into a central schism between the Peace and Justice camps. In many European countries, Ukraine’s cause could change from being a unifying national endeavor and turn into a divisive political issue. But, as well as causing tensions within individual countries, the war could mean that the political stances of states such as Poland and Italy increasingly diverge.

In the early stages of the war, countries in central and eastern Europe felt vindicated in their past hawkishness towards Russia, and have grown in confidence and power within the EU. But, in the next phase, countries such as Poland could find themselves marginalized if the Peace camp broadens its appeal among the other member states. The key to maintaining European unity in support of Ukraine is to take the fears of escalation seriously and to present the conflict as a defensive struggle against Russian aggression rather than talking about Ukrainian victory and defeating Russia. While the Ukraine conflict could yet prove to be the midwife of a much more muscular EU, this research shows that support for increased defense spending is weaker among the public than it might appear if one were to listen only to political leaders.

Perhaps the most worrying sign is that most Europeans see the EU as a major loser in the war, rather than reading its relative unity as a sign of a strengthening union. The danger remains that the Peace and Justice camps could yet become as polarized as the debtors and creditors in the euro crisis of the early 2010s. If this is allowed to happen – and if the EU becomes immobilized by its own divisions – then the war could signal the permanent marginalization of Europe on the world stage. European public opinion fortified the EU’s unity in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is now up to Europe’s leaders to sustain this unity. Finding a language that appeals to the Swing voters – tough on Russia, but cautious about the dangers of escalation – could provide a way of squaring the circle of public opinion.

If the EU manages to maintain the broad front it has shown so far, and if governments from all sides hang together rather than trying to humiliate one another, a stronger – geopolitical – Europe could still emerge from the shadow of war. How the Russian invasion of Ukraine is resolved will have far-reaching consequences for the brewing conflict between the US and China.

‘Peace Versus Justice: The Coming European Split Over the War in Ukraine’ — Policy Brief by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard — European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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