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The solidarity shown by European civilians and politicians in response to the war in Ukraine is unheard of. ‘We always define our identity, or who we are as a group, in relation to a common “other”. For Europe, Russia has become the other. Many Europeans remember the Cold War or Russian occupation. The war has brought these memories back. This has given a boost to the unity we’re witnessing in Europe today.’ We talk to political scientist Theresa Kuhn about European solidarity and the war in Ukraine.

Members of the European Parliament give a standing ovation to show their support for Ukraine during a plenary session on Russian aggression (Brussels, Belgium, 1 March 2022).
Members of the European Parliament give a standing ovation to show their support for Ukraine during a plenary session on Russian aggression (Brussels, Belgium, 1 March 2022).

Remarkable solidarity among civilians and politicians

‘We notice a remarkable solidarity among European civilians and politicians’, says political scientist Theresa Kuhn, a researcher of European politics and society. ‘This is something we’ve not previously seen on this scale in recent European Union history.’ She finds it striking how willing politicians are to welcome refugees – even politicians who usually favour strict immigration and asylum rules. ‘Moreover, the speed with which the EU has acted to impose sanctions on Russia is impressive, and for the first time in history, the EU finances the purchase of weapons by a non-EU country .’

This widespread solidarity is noticeable among civilians as well: on social media, in displays of the Ukrainian flag and in the many donations. ‘Many people are literally opening their doors to people they don’t know personally’, Kuhn observes. ‘In Poland, for example, where most refugees have fled to, they’re being received mainly in private residences.’ According to Kuhn, the fact that European civilians are able to identify with Ukrainian refugees is a factor in this.

Unity and solidarity is all the EU can offer

Kuhn believes that this unprecedented unity and solidarity is a consequence of how we experience our European identity in these times of war. ‘We always define who we are as a group in relation to a common “other”. Russia has turned itself into this other, thereby reinforcing the European sense of community. The war has also brought back memories of the Cold War and Russian occupation.’ In addition, the daily images of the war are feeding the perception of a powerful aggressor attacking a smaller, innocent neighbour, ‘like David facing Goliath’.

These things aside, Kuhn states that the cause of the war is also a major contributor to European unity. ‘Ukraine came under attack because it had grown too close to the EU. For this reason, European politicians feel like they’ve been dragged into this war. At the same time, they can’t give Ukraine what it wants, which is a no-fly zone and NATO membership. So they’re offering what they can instead: the prospect of EU membership and open doors to refugees.’ Finally, Kuhn is convinced that European politicians want to show a united front against Russia and send a message that Europe will defend the values that Russia is currently attacking.

Public opinion may yet change

However, Kuhn fears that this unity and solidarity may become strained. ‘According to current predictions, around 8 million people will flee Ukraine for Europe. It’ll be a huge challenge to accommodate all those people and organise the provision of services like education and health care. If civilians perceive any negative consequences, public opinion may rapidly change.’

Kuhn believes that in the long term, politicians will face difficult questions on European policy as well. ‘Who will bear and share that burden? Who will pay the cost of receiving those refugees? Who will pay for the impact of sanctions and the dependence on Russian gas? Politicians are already discussing whether member states should do this individually or collectively. The unity we’re seeing at the moment may well collapse in the long run.’ Moreover, we can see the first cracks in European unity, for example by Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán opposing a ban on Russian energy imports.

A turning point in European politics

Even so, Kuhn argues that the war marks a turning point in European politics that could lead to further integration. ‘Historically, crises have always given a boost to European integration. In that sense, this war may prove to be a historic development with a consequence that Russia didn’t intend: a stronger EU.’ And also for her as researcher this war marks a turning point, 'As researchers, our main concern used to be issues within Europe itself. We used to look at internal crises and their impact on European integration. Now we’re seeing that the main driver of change is an external one.'

The prospect of EU membership seems more designed to be symbolic

Kuhn is doubtful that Ukraine will indeed become an EU member state in the near future. Accession to the EU is a highly complex and lengthy procedure that cannot be completed in one day. ‘For the moment, the prospect of EU membership seems more designed to be symbolic, given the inability of political leaders to give Ukraine what it really wants.’ Besides, Kuhn is sceptical that membership will solve Ukraine’s problems. ‘When it comes to the stability that the country is longing for, it may even have the opposite effect, as it will only make Putin more aggressive.’

About Kuhn’s research

Kuhn’s research concerns European politics and society. She is mainly interested in how European integration and globalisation impact people’s daily lives and how they shape people’s political beliefs and identity. The focus of her research is on questions of European identity and solidarity.

Personal website Theresa Kuhn