25 years ago this November, the Berlin Wall fell and the separation between east and west in Europe began the long, torturous process of healing. Today, you might be forgiven for thinking that the political distance between eastern Europe and western Europe is again growing, rather than shrinking. Ukraine is torn between EU integration and Russian subjugation, and the Kremlin appears to be preparing to place their tanks on the Ukrainian lawn. The prospect of a war in Europe is once again a very real one, and the rhetoric is bold and worrying to anyone who cares about the welfare of the people of Ukraine and about the future of the European project.
What does the Ukrainian crisis tell us? Well, first of all, it shows that there are still some people who value the idea of Europe. The protestors on the streets in Kyiv were initially mobilised to fight for closer European integration; eventually, the protests snowballed to include more general discontent with the president, Viktor Yanukovych, and corruption within his government. Even if the issue of Europe isn't the key driving force in these protests anymore (debatable), it is still something about which the people of Ukraine care deeply. They want to be a part of it, and they're willing to instigate a revolution in order to make that happen. More broadly, the people of Ukraine are attempting not just to integrate within Europe, but to build for themselves a more European-style society. Ukrainians are rejecting the hallmarks of a totalitarian, crooked, old-school-Soviet society - human rights abuses, limits on freedom, gross corruption of public officials - and turning to the European model instead.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the events in Kyiv don't really have much bearing on anything here in Britain. You'd certainly get that impression if you analysed what David Cameron has had to say on the issue of the great Russian bear stretching its legs within the confines of a separate, sovereign nation (not very much at all, if you're curious). However, what's going on in Ukraine is helpful to anyone who wants to tackle the rising tide of Euroscepticism here in the UK. If you want to demonstrate the value of the European Union, look no further than the events of the last few weeks, and the contrasting example of Latvia. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Latvia has chunks of territory where the population is both ethnically and linguistically Russian, much like in Crimea (the area of Ukraine now apparently occupied by Russian troops). The reason why Latvia hasn't seen itself carved up by the Russians is because it's protected as an EU and NATO member - a privilege that does not extend to Ukraine, and therefore leaves it unprotected. The family of nations is an idea that does still matter, and does still make a positive difference in today's world. If the EU had been expanded to include Ukraine, as many of its citizens appear to desire, then we wouldn't now be looking at the possible Russian annexation of a Ukrainian territory.
That's a practical example of why the events in Ukraine should make us more positive about Europe. Now, here's one concerning perspective - liberty and sovereignty. Eurosceptics are forever crying about the loss of British sovereignty to banana-straightening bureaucrats in Brussels, and forever whinging about the irrevocable loss of personal liberty that the European project requires on behalf of its citizens. I'd like you, now, to stop for a second, and imagine what the loss of liberty and sovereignty really looks like. Does it look like Britain in 2014 or does it look like Ukraine in 2014? Do we really have the right to carp about such trifles when, on our continent, 25 years after the end of Soviet totalitarianism, the freedoms enjoyed by a sizeable number of Europeans appear to be receding, not growing? And furthermore, here we have a case where a more active engagement with the EU might have helped to safeguard sovereignty and liberty, not endanger them. As it is, there now appears to be full-scale moves towards war between two sovereign nations, with no prior aggression directed by the (potentially soon-to-be) invaded nation against the (potentially soon-to-be) invading nation. Again - this wouldn't have happened if Ukraine had been an EU member.
Europe isn't perfect, and nor is the EU. Neither are 'finished projects', so to speak. The Ukrainian revolution is a powerful reminder that not all the former Soviet republics democratised at the same time, or at the same pace, and we all know that the EU is hardly a paradise for democracy. Yet it cannot be argued that the European vision of a free society is vastly superior to the alternative that the Ukrainians so comprehensively rejected. It is an ideal that matters to the people who flooded the streets of Kyiv, and it is a vision of how a society should work that must matter to us, too. We don't live in a country of Molotov cocktails and snipers targeting civilians, but if we forget that some people, not too far away from you and me, do inhabit that world, and need solidarity from their European cousins, then we diminish the spirit of the values that bind us together. We are lucky, in this country, to have the freedoms that we enjoy, and we should use the ideas of Europe and the EU to ensure that all the people of this continent can share them too.
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