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Thank EU: Why Ukraine Means We Must Re-energise the European Union

07/04/2014 15:09 BST | Updated 05/06/2014 10:59 BST

A menacing geopolitical presence is extending across Europe. Heedless of national autonomy and personal rights, it remorselessly centralizes power in a grim and faceless bureaucracy. Many in the United Kingdom regard it as the greatest threat to their freedom since Hitler's Germany.

This menace isn't Vladimir Putin's Russia - it's the European Union. That, at least, is how the EU is increasingly perceived across Western Europe. Since the economic crisis hit in 2008 and the bloc stumbled to respond over subsequent years, the EU's approval ratings have hit lows that would bring little cheer to any political body with the possible exception of the U.S. Congress. In January, a Gallup poll found that approval of the EU leadership was over 50% in only four member-states. Those states that have been on the receiving end of the bloc's austerity policies, such as Spain or Greece, registered double-digit drops since 2008.

Nor are economic woes the only threats to the EU's popularity. With economic pain has come a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. A shrinking fiscal pie has caused widespread questioning of the right of people to move across borders within the union. In Britain, the government is responding to the rise of the populist, anti-EU UK Independence Party by bemoaning the negative impact of immigration on "ordinary, hard-working people". British people, that is. While the British right remains relatively genteel by international standards, the same Gallup poll noted the rise of radical right-wing parties in six other EU members.

Splits within the bloc have been evident over its handling of the Ukraine crisis. Eastern European countries who make up the EU's newest members are the most ardent supporters of standing up to Russia. Many of them have recent historical experiences of Russian domination, and are not so easily allured by the economic links that have ensnared some Western European governments into a murky accommodation with Moscow. But while no Western European politician has been as direct as Jacques Chirac was when he called the former Soviet countries "infantile" and "reckless" for their foreign policy views in 2003, this unhelpful condescension has not entirely disappeared from Western European capitals.

The sum total of all of this is a dangerous undermining of European solidarity. Much of the infuriation with EU bureaucrats and the bloc's democratic deficit are warranted. But recent events in Ukraine ought to teach us that solidarity is itself a precious commodity, much more precious than the votes to be gained by playing up the bloc's flaws. This means keeping sight not just of the need to close diplomatic ranks in the present crisis but also a realization of the EU's inherent value as a liberal, free-market counterweight to an authoritarian and bellicose Russia.

For too many people in Western Europe, the EU has become synonymous with petty bureaucracy, unpopular fiscal policies and little else. The idea it represents an ideal is almost alien. The sight of young people braving sniper fire to wave EU flags in Kiev's Independence Square was virtually incomprehensible to most voters in Britain, where the media has spent years trying to convince us to view Eastern Europe as a source of cheap labour threatening to undercut own jobs than as a fellow part of Europe with which we share a common fate.

But for millions in Ukraine and elsewhere the EU does represent an ideal. It has brought stability to the far reaches of the European continent, for instance by encouraging nationalists in the Balkans to stop their region's dizzying descent into madness in return for a shot at membership. Further back, it helped to cement the transition from dictatorship to democracy in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece and from Communism in many post-Soviet states. Through all of this, it has prevented a return to the sort of revanchist politics we have just seen play out so tragically on the Crimean peninsula. This stability has benefited not only citizens in the relatively new states of the union but also the very Western Europeans who now view the EU with barely-disguised distaste.

Outside threats often serve the function of making us put aside petty differences and to focus on what we have in common. We Europeans are members of a privileged club which has brought peace to Europe in a way which so many previous generations yearned for. Putin's menacing yet tottering regime won't find us easy prey so long as we stick together. But his means maintaining solidarity across the continent and starting to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.

It also means that if we expect the countries of Eastern Europe to be on the front line of a new struggle with Russia - to act as the buffer between us and the threat of further Crimeas - we must see that the European ideal means something to those countries which are closest to Putin's Russia and hence most susceptible to its malign influence. Upholding the right of free movement across the European continent, and hence underlining our joint ownership of its destiny, would be a laudable beginning.