Could this war actually be an opportunity? There is every reason - rooted in both reason and emotion - to reject that view. And yet, it has happened time and again. Wars are game changers; they transform a huge number of things. First and foremost, of course, they turn people's everyday lives into nightmares, but politically, the occasional positive effect can result. Is the European Union one of those cases?
Yes, argues the Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev, a researcher at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and one of the leading political thinkers of our times. Before the war, Krastev wrote that Europe was on the verge of crumbling, mainly because of the dispute between the illiberal democracies in Poland and Hungary with the European Commission and most other EU member states.
These days, though, he is more optimistic. "The war is an opportunity for the European Union," Krastev said at a meeting in Vienna shortly after Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Compromises, he added, were suddenly within reach: The Polish government can no longer claim that the greatest threat to its sovereignty is Brussels. That threat now comes from Moscow. And the EU, which had seen its role as transforming countries like Poland, has now come to recognize their value in the fight against the Russian threat.
Claudia Major, security expert
Krastev believes that Europe can learn two lessons from the war: That no country can withstand the external challenges alone, certainly not military ones. At the same time, though, he says, the war is not a battle for Europe. Whereas Ukrainians are defending their country, it's their own nations that the Poles and the Baltic states are worried about – a demonstration, he says, that the nation-state is still important for people's political identity.
Reconciling that which Europeans share with that which sets them apart – embodied in the national – has been the grand Europe mission since the end of World War II. Germany, in particular, has long been an advocate of the common, expressed by the concept of an "ever closer union," an aim proclaimed in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The ultimate goal is that of a federalist state, sovereign both internally and externally. The current government in Berlin explicitly backs that goal.
In truth, however, the European Union is far from that vision. Sovereignty continues to lie primarily with the nation states, and they are eager to preserve that which sets them apart, particularly the newer members in Eastern Europe. And in Western Europe, the rise of populist political parties and the refocus on national interests that took place during the euro and refugee crises weakened the trend toward the common. The utopia of an internally sovereign Europe is no longer as potent as it once was.
The utopia of a sovereign Europe on the international stage, however, is still very much alive. The idea is that of an EU that pursues a common foreign and security policy and an EU that is able to defend itself, also by nuclear means. Another term for this is strategic autonomy.
But the war in Ukraine has mercilessly exposed the fact that this autonomy doesn't currently exist. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would like to lead his country into the EU, but only the U.S. can guarantee real security in the West. Europe has long cowered beneath the protective umbrella of the United States, but that isn't a reliable long-term strategy.
As such, there are two contradictory developments: Utopia I, inward sovereignty, seems to have lost its pull for now. Utopia II, however, external sovereignty, has become all the more indispensable.
But is it sustainable for the EU to be dominated internally by nation states and externally by that which unites it? It sounds like a dilemma, as is so often the case in Europe. Are there any potential solutions?
A journey into the minds of those whose job it is to consider the future of the European Union begins with anger. "We Europeans should be ashamed that we are incapable of military protecting such a wonderful project like the EU ourselves," says Claudia Major, head of the security policy research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, an independent think tank funded largely by the Chancellery.
The Europeans have left their protection to NATO, which may be largely made up of European nation states, but is worth little without the U.S. "NATO can't defend Europe without the conventional and nuclear contributions from the U.S. and its political leadership," Major says.
Incapable of defense without the Americans, who, in just under two-and-a-half years, could once again elect Donald Trump or some other president who thinks little of NATO.
Incapable of defense without the Americans, who are increasingly focused on the threats emanating from the authoritarian regime in Beijing.
In a worst-case scenario, the EU would be largely defenseless against Russia and its ruler, Vladimir Putin, who seems capable of anything.
Major doesn't have much hope that the EU would fare particularly well without its American protective umbrella. The F-35 fighter jets recently ordered by Germany, to name one example, won't be deployable for eight more years. Other projects will take nearly 20 years before they can contribute to the EU's defense.
To truly break away from its reliance on the U.S., Europe would also need a strong nuclear arsenal of its own. Establishing such a deterrent would also likely take decades. If, that is, such a development is even possible, given the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and the widespread resistance to be expected in numerous member states.
What to do? Major proposes that the EU and NATO be better interlinked and, at the same time, that the armies of the EU member states be upgraded, primarily conventionally, with tanks and helicopters. She says, though, that it must be done in a more coordinated way that before, by way of specialization, for example. If the Czechs have already developed significant capabilities on atomic, biological and chemical (ABC) weapons defense, then there's no need for Slovakia to develop its own ABC defense capabilities, she says. Armament projects free of nation-state egoism would be an important step forward, Major argues.
"The trick for the Europeans," Major says, "will be to gradually increase military capability without making the U.S. feel like we don't need them anymore." It will be a balancing act. In the best case, the two sides will remain close partners: a militarily strengthened EU with the U.S. "If we Europeans become stronger, we will also grow more attractive to the United States as a partner," says Major.
This wouldn't be the completion of Utopia II, but would relegate its realization to the distant future. Even if politicians were now to throw their energies behind building an externally sovereign EU, Utopia II is still decades down the road - a bitter yet realistic truth. Indeed, Major has every reason to be angry.
Anna Cavazzini describes herself as an ardent European. She would like to see the development of a European federal state, with a European government and a European parliament. Utopia I.
Cavazzini, a Green Party politician, has been a member of the European Parliament for just under three years. The meeting with her takes place in a cafeteria of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, an institution that embodies Europe's belief in deeper integration more than any other. It is a vast, bewildering structure – symbolic of the EU.
Cavazzini is far from an uncritical pro-European romantic. She rose to chair the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee in her first term, quickly joining the ranks of the most powerful members of European Parliament. She works on major issues like supply chains, but also dives into the details, such as developing regulations aimed at a standardized charging cable for all mobile phones in the EU.
To a certain extent, Cavazzini's enthusiasm for Europe echoes ideas adhered to by all parties in the former West Germany: that the nation state should gradually be absorbed into Europe and that German interests are best enforced at the European level. The dream of an "ever closer union" is alive and well in Cavazzini.
Her passion for the EU was ignited in eastern Germany, where she majored in European Studies, a degree she started in Chemnitz in 2003. She says that is where she became involved in youth exchanges. "I know that sounds like platitudes," she says, "but it was an incredible feeling to cross borders and realize how much you have in common with students from Poland and the Czech Republic."
She is pleased that the Greens negotiated the idea of a federal Europe into the new government coalition agreement in Germany. "It's my belief that you can't take the first steps if you don't know the direction." It's an idea first formulated by then-Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer back in 2000, during a speech on Europe he gave at Berlin's Humboldt University. Fischer had hoped for the "finality of European integration."
Cavazzini's focus is on the European Parliament. As the only directly elected body in the EU, she believes it should be given more power to introduce legislation and that it should have the ability to vote out members of the European Commission. In short, she believes that the nation-states must relinquish more power. Most importantly, she believes that nation-state veto rights must be eliminated - that majority rule should be introduced rather than compulsory unanimity. That would lead the way toward the EU gradually becoming a sovereign federal state.
More Europe in response to reservations about the EU. The utopia of a young Green Party member.
When Dutchman René Cuperus worked his way through the programs of the Greens and the far-left Left Party, he was shocked. "They read like the letters of 16-year-old girls," he says. Cuperus, a Social Democrat, is a visiting researcher at the Duitsland Instituut (Germany Institute) of the University of Amsterdam, as well as an adviser to the Dutch government and a senior associate fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute for International Relations.
René Cuperus, Dutch government adviser
Cuperus' book "Seven Myths about Europe" was published late last year. He addressed the book at the Germans and not his own compatriots. In it, Cuperus writes: "For the Germans, Europe is both a substitute nation and a substitute religion: A substitute homeland and a new religion. This European thinking sprang from the moral guilt and historical scars of the German atrocities of the 20th century." For the founding decades of the Federal Republic of Germany, Cuperus' words certainly do ring true, but not necessarily for today's Europe enthusiasts.
Cuperus looks at Europe with the gaze of the inhabitant of one of the bloc's smaller countries - countries that constantly worry about being dominated by the larger ones, especially by the Germans and the French. "The Netherlands has been betrayed twice," says Cuperus. The first time with the Stability and Growth Pact, which both Germany and France violated during the early 2000s, without no consequences. "Do the rules not apply to big countries?" asks Cuperus. The second time was in 2020, when the Germans agreed with the French on issuing a kind of common debt to combat the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Dutch viewed the pandemic reconstruction effort skeptically and suddenly looked like tightwads. Yet the Dutch view themselves as model Europeans, Cuperus says. They tried to support other small member states deal with the constant stream of new regulations from Brussels. But he says that even for the Dutch, the flood is barely manageable.
Cuperus accuses the Germans of projecting their trauma onto the EU, especially "their totally distorted, poisoned relationship with their own nation." Understandably, he writes in his book, Germans suffered from "post-traumatic stress syndrome" in light of the terrible years from 1933 to 1945. But other European countries came out of that war with a different "mindset," he argues, and didn't want to abolish their national consciousness.
Cuperus rejects Utopia I, a sovereign federal state of Europe. He sees a danger that it could become "a kind of enlarged Federal Republic of Germany, only with additional states."
He argues that the EU should strengthen its common foreign and security policy by abandoning unanimity in that area and allowing majority decisions – in other words, Utopia II. But Cuperus' deep-seated distrust of the Germans limits his desire for greater strategic autonomy for the EU. Without the Americans, he fears, Germany would be too strong. And that would result in an "asymmetry of power" in Europe.
Soldiers with a German-French Brigade: The EU and NATO should be better interlinked.Foto: Björn Trotzki / IMAGO
Still, for all his skepticism about Germany, Cuperus does have high hopes for one German institution: He wants to see the Federal Constitutional Court prevent a European federal state from becoming a reality.
Andreas Vosskuhle is sitting in his office at the University of Freiburg, where he has been teaching public law for two years now. He previously served as president of the Federal Constitutional Court, a position in which he played a decisive role in shaping the relationship between democracy and integration.
In an essay titled, "On Democracy in Europe," Vosskuhle wrote: "For the time being, democratic legitimacy of European sovereignty depends largely on national democracies." It's the kind of sentence Cuperus is fond of reading. But they have earned Vosskuhle the reputation of not being a friend of European integration.
It's an accusation that Vosskuhle considers to be false. "I continue to believe in a European federalist state," he says. "I am in favor of it continuing to be a goal, especially in times when the EU isn't so successful." This federalist state, though, he says, must be democratically desired and agreed upon by the citizens of Europe.
It is a demand that highlights a central problem of the EU: Some of its institutions have only weak democratic legitimacy, but they nevertheless have an outsized influence over what happens. The European Court of Justice (ECJ), for example, is driving integration, even though not all nation states want it. Vosskuhle considers this kind of integration through the back door dangerous. During a lecture last year, he said the European Commission wants to introduce a federalist Europe under the radar. It is, though, he insists, a decision for the citizens of the EU.
Vosskuhle believes that this isn't just a legal requirement. He also fears that lacking such democratic legitimization, EU citizens might otherwise turn their backs on Europe.
Developments have shown that his concern is not unfounded. Governing parties in both Poland and Hungary are critical of the EU. In the first round of voting in the French presidential election, anti-European parties from the left and the right received more than 50 percent of the vote. There are risks involved if European unification becomes a bureaucratic project.
But who ultimately decides whether the path to a federal state is legally correct? For the EU institutions, the matter is clear. "The last word on EU law is always spoken in Luxembourg and nowhere else," says European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, referring to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). She says the same law must apply in all member states.
Vosskuhle also holds such a view, in principle. But for him, the crucial question is a different one. Who is checking to see whether the European Central Bank is usurping a competency that Germany's parliament did not confer to it? Can the ECJ rule on whether Germany has transferred competencies to the EU?
Germany's Constitutional Court gave that answer under Vosskuhle's leadership two years ago. For the first time, the court ruled that a judgment of the ECJ was invalid because it had exceeded its powers. "National constitutional courts must help monitor the progress of European integration as long as there is no European federal state," Vosskuhle says.
The ECJ as the driver of integration and the Federal Constitutional Court as the guardian of democracy is a dispute that cannot be decided. The power of the judges in Karlsrule won't end until Germany is absorbed into a federal state of Europe. He says the Germans would have to vote on that absorption in a referendum. Whether everything remains above board until that point will be decided by the judges at the German high court.
The German historian Heinrich August Winkler also sees no basis for an internal sovereignty within the European Union. "There can be no sovereignty beyond popular sovereignty," he says. That would require a complete legitimization of European politics through the parliament in Strasbourg. And that isn't even close to existing, he says. Not even the basic rule of "one man, one vote" applies, since an electoral vote from Malta carries 10 times more weight at the European level than one from Germany.
Winkler wrote a sympathetic review of Cuperus' book. But he also stresses that a more closely interlinked foreign and security policy must also have parliamentary legitimacy. And the only way to do that is through the member states. But even "the individual members states are no longer classic, fully sovereign nation states," Winkler says. They have already ceded too many competencies to Brussels, he argues. Plus, they are no longer able to project power on their own. Against Putin's Russia, for example.
They're in a kind of limbo. No one in Europe is truly sovereign. The member states need Brussels, they need each other, they need NATO and they need the U.S. And this will remain the case for years to come.
Ivan Krastev, political scientist
Ivan Krastev's solution is reconciliation. "If we care about the union, we should make reconciliation the top priority," he says. That means defusing the EU's internal contradictions, even if they can't be completely resolved. Poland and other countries would have to recognize that there are rules that apply to everyone. And the EU, he says, would have to accept that many member states don't want their own cultural identity to be absorbed into Europe.
And how do you reconcile the main contradiction between integration and democracy? Krastev points out that many liberal intellectuals view democracy as a threat to Europe. Democracy, after all, could destroy the EU if citizens elect anti-European governments. Or if they vote against European projects in referendums, as has happened in France, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Greece, the population voted against the austerity package imposed by Brussels during the euro and debt crisis. But the EU still forced the Greek government to comply with its conditions.
So, what is more important: Europe or democracy?
For Krastev, the answer lies in political practice. For him, Europe is a place of negotiation. The EU, he says, isn't heading towards some end point, certainly not that of a federal state. He describes it as a living entity, one that must change depending on the challenge.
The EU's attempts to gain legitimacy through a steady drumbeat of new reforms – the proclamation of a leading candidate in the election for the European Parliament, for example, or the strengthening of European Parliament – miss the mark, he believes. "Surviving in crisis is what gives Europe its legitimacy," he says.
But Brussels isn't capable of that on its own. Aligning policy with community resilience requires an understanding of your own society, Krastev says. From the perspective of Brussels, this isn't possible because there is no European society. "There are highly intelligent people sitting in Brussels who see everything in terms of costs and benefits," he says.
Krastev is convinced that psychological factors are important in politics in terms of leaders and society. But politics in Brussels is depersonalized, he says. "With all due respect: Who wants to write a book about the mind of Ursula von der Leyen?"
Krastev's utopia: Europe will work together even more closely after the war, he says. And that integration will be driven by the member states. "Brussels will be a service provider for this integration." Then, a more appropriate acronym than EU would likely be the EUN: the European Union of Nations.