In just one week, the continent has rediscovered a sense of shared risk, community and duty
Fraser Nelson for the Telegraph - 3 March 2022
Until a few days ago, things were going about as well as Vladimir Putin could have hoped for. He’d established that no country would fight with Ukraine, as Germany’s offer of 5,000 helmets attested. Squabbling over potential sanctions made it a stretch to talk about “the West” at all, certainly not as a coherent block. Nato seemed a relic, a decaying monument to what once was. The queue of world leaders waiting to sit at the end of Putin’s long table seemed to show where power lay.
Now things have changed – and changed utterly. “The brutality of the Russian, the prudence of the American and the audacity of the Ukrainian combined to inflict an electric shock on the sleepy Old Continent,” says Le Figaro.
Putin has advanced “the cause of European defence more in three days than in 30 years”, says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
And it is Europe – rather than just the European Union – that is now uniting. Norway is deploying the might of its sovereign wealth fund (the world’s largest) by selling every Russian company it owns. Not so long ago, Britain was the only country sending weapons to Ukraine. Now, 20 countries are doing so – as is the EU itself, buying arms for the first time ever. Even Sweden, which hasn’t sent arms to a war zone in 80 years, is dispatching 5,000 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine while upping its own defence budget.
Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor of Germany, is barely recognisable from the vacillating figure who so recently could not decide whether Russia should be kicked off the Swift banking payment system. He has now just agreed to ditch not just Swift but Nord Stream 2, the Russian-gas pipeline that took five years and €10 billion to build. Once, two-thirds of Germans backed it. Now, the same ratio want it gone. Last weekend, protesters in Berlin waved placards saying “better a cold shower than Putin’s gas”.
The old cleavage in Europe – the hawkish ex-Soviet states vs follow- the-money German mercantilism – is no more. Scholz’s plan to spend €100 billion more on defence is astonishing. Even more astonishing are the polls showing that 78 per cent of Germans back him, about as much support as anyone gets for anything in a democracy. Poland, for its part, wants to lift defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP and double its military to 300,000 troops. “You want peace? Get ready for war,” says its president, Andrzej Duda. Scholz agrees.
Once, Emmanuel Macron would have delighted in mocking the likes of Duda and accused them of being stuck in a 1980s mindset. Now, Macron is talking like Reagan, saying how important it is for the French to endure economic hardships in sanctions against Russia (Boris Johnson has yet to be so candid with Britain – even though the sanctions he backed may lift our heating bills by a further 50 per cent). This is a message you can hear from Malta to Malmö: it’s time to take financial pain.
This isn’t a reflexive return to the Cold War because, even then, there was more division. Back then, Scandinavians hedged their bets. Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, never joined Nato. But now, a petition with more than 50,000 signatures is forcing the Finnish parliament to debate Nato membership; polls show 53 per cent want to join. Nato membership is also back on Sweden’s agenda, backed by four political parties.Even Switzerland, whose economy is built on neutrality, is backing the West’s economic sanctions.
Two years ago, Macron was denouncing Nato as “brain dead”; now, the only question is how much bigger it gets. Joe Biden used his State of the Union address to praise his European allies, rather than curse them as Donald Trump did. Japan, South Korea and Singapore have added a global element to the Western response, both backing the banking sanctions to stop Putin accessing his $630 billion reserve fund. Russia’s currency is now collapsing. Had any of this global coherence looked likely two weeks ago, Putin might not have invaded.
The humanitarian crisis – and the million Ukrainians who have gone from residents to refugees in the space of a few days – will be one test of this cohesion. Poland, which point blank refused to take refugees during the 2015 influx, has unconditionally opened its doors to all Ukrainians: now the Law & Justice Party’s Mateusz Morawiecki is the one saying “we can do this!” Boris Johnson, oddly, has not yet made the same offer.
He’ll have to soon. A week of atrocity in Ukraine has brought a sharper sense of European cohesion than anyone would have thought possible. And not by any grand plan, by any politician in any Western parliament. The most influential leader has been Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, whose courage has brought people to the streets of cities world over, demanding that their governments act. Those governments listened. When Europe unites – Norway and Britain speaking as one with EU member states – it’s quite something.
It is perhaps too soon to speak of a geopolitical awakening among Europeans. But the response to Ukraine has shown an incredible, spontaneous coherence across the continent that speaks to a sense of shared risk, community and duty.
Ukraine, in the end, has not been seen as a faraway country of whom we know little but a friend in need. And friends who will be welcomed, in their thousands, as their homeland is shelled.
With every day that Zelensky holds out against Putin’s troops, the invasion of Ukraine looks a worse idea for Putin. It has not fallen as Crimea did nor, in the end, were Germans so easily bought. The European arms now flooding in would be enough to ensure a long guerilla war against Russian forces if Kyiv does fall.
In Whitehall, worse is expected: cyber attacks, even the release of leaked emails aimed at embarrassing politicians. And inflation on a scale that will cost billions: for government and households.
A poll in Germany last night showed that just 6 per cent now regard Russia as a “trustworthy partner”, a shift in opinion that may lead to the economic rewiring of the continent.
One way or another, this could well be a long war. But it really seems as if Europe will face it together.
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