May 9 will be celebrated as Victory Day in Russia and as Europe Day in much of the rest of Europe. The coincidence in time between a cult of military victory and a celebration of European peace and unity has long been a little jarring. Today the clash is more sinister, reflecting as it does what is at stake in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin will no doubt highlight some confected victory, probably based on his recreation in Mariupol of Germany’s punishment of Warsaw for resisting during the second world war. He has long sought to undermine Europe’s unity around its common interests and the expansion of its democratic peace in alliance with the US.
What this means is that the two celebrations are no longer just in tension but antithetical to each other. Ukraine is the current battlefield on which Putin wages his assault on Europe’s peace and unity. It is significant, then, that the war is strengthening moves towards greater unity in democratic Europe.
This is most obvious in the security field. In the north, Finland and Sweden are on the cusp of joining Nato. As Putin realises, this reflects closer intra-European unity as well as transatlantic links even if superficially unrelated to the EU. Besides, Denmark looks set to decide next month to abandon its opt-out from the EU’s defence policy collaboration.
What is more, this Europe Day coincides with the conclusion of “the conference on the future of Europe”, and a rising groundswell of interest in treaty change for greater European integration.
Italian prime minister Mario Draghi last week spoke in favour of a “pragmatic federalism” to more efficiently pursue goals that the war makes Europeans realise they hold in common, such as reducing their dependence on Russian fossil energy.
That followed a call from Austria’s foreign minister for the EU to grasp the “geostrategic moment” and reform its accession rules to give Ukraine and Balkan countries rapid access to its membership structures.
The outcome of the future of Europe conference will put on the table a range of proposals for “more Europe”, including those requiring treaty change. Many of them will have their greatest champion in newly re-elected French president Emmanuel Macron, who proposed “democratic conventions” to debate deeper integration in his Sorbonne speech five years ago.
There is no shortage of reasons to doubt that any of this will come to much (and no lack of naysayers pointing them out). Above all, treaty change is still unappetising to many member states. Researchers at the European Policy Centre put the number of member states prepared to launch a convention on treaty change at eight to 10 — not yet enough but getting close.
But it would be wrong to see this as a replay of past political differences, with calls for further integration by the usual suspects — in particular France and the European South — blocked by Germany and northern members. For one thing, the current German government opened the door to treaty change in its coalition agreement.
And most importantly, the sense that EU countries need to do more (and possibly spend more) together is almost universally shared. The war shows the futility of uncoordinated defence procurement. Energy challenges from fossil imports to electricity pricing can only be solved permanently through more collective action and costly joined-up infrastructure. Required unanimity makes sanctions policy harder.
Whether these are addressed through treaty change or through more active joint policymaking and spending within the current set-up is secondary. Indeed both approaches will produce more results if pursued together, as the EPC points out in a paper.
The greater obstacles are vetoes by holdout countries or growing anti-Europeanism inside countries. The former is illustrated by Hungary’s resistance to an embargo of Russian oil. The latter by the extraordinary willingness of France’s greens and socialists to join a leftwing electoral pact explicitly based on disapplying some EU rules.
The optimistic view is that holdouts will be won over by a mix of pressure and pay-offs. Meanwhile, French polling suggests anti-Europeanism will simply put a ceiling (albeit an uncomfortably high one) on parties that see no other path to victory.
Putin has long been betting on the opposite. Since the meaning of his Victory Day has become the defeat of Europe’s unity, there is no better time to prove him wrong.