Opinion

How Putin midwifed the United States of Europe

How Russia's war in Ukraine launched a new era of European unity

Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it was common for analysts in the West to presume a war on Europe's eastern edge would provoke rancorous division over how to respond within the European Union and NATO. Some economic sanctions would undoubtedly be imposed. But beyond that, we'd see bickering and backbiting from Barcelona to Berlin. 

In fact, the diametric opposite has occurred. Europe has been united and resolute. Commercial and private planes from Russia have been locked out of European airspace. Individual countries have begun seizing property from Russian oligarchs, including their vulgarly ostentatious super-yachts, and sending weapons to Ukraine. And Germany, the wealthiest country in Europe (measured by total 2020 GDP), has sharply increased defense spending, breaking from decades of resistance to doing so. (The first poll published since the change shows 78 percent German support for that shift; another puts support somewhat lower, but still at roughly two-thirds of the country.)

Put it all together and we're left with an undeniable conclusion: Russian President Vladimir Putin has inadvertently accomplished what often seemed impossible — bringing the continent together on foreign policy and thereby laying a solid foundation for a true United States of Europe. The implications for the EU and the U.S. alike will be profound.

British conservative Ed West recently explained the motor behind the change in an illuminating Substack post. Just as Napoleon's conquering army unintentionally inspired national self-consciousness and aspirations among formerly disparate European peoples, so Putin's invasion has provoked unity in the continent as a whole, as members of the EU have felt deeply threatened by a common adversary. This is a straightforward illustration of in-group/out-group dynamics: Any group's internal cohesion increases when it defines itself against an external threat.  

But this change is also accomplishing the third and final step toward continent-wide integration. The European Union began as a common market that slowly expanded in size. That initial economic arrangement came to be supplemented by numerous political and regulatory institutions for the continent as a whole, above the political institutions of individual nations, including (by the late 1990s) a European Central Bank. The result has been a slow-motion birth, in fits and starts, of a super-state — kind of like a supersonic jet constructing itself in mid-flight.  

But the one area where the process of political unification has been repeatedly stymied is defense. With the United States still taking ultimate responsibility, through NATO, for the continent's security, and EU member states usually prioritizing national interest over defining and defending the bloc's collective interests, the EU's halting efforts to forge common bonds over relations with the rest of the world have foundered.

Until now, that is.

If Russia quickly pulls back from its misadventure in Ukraine, bringing the war to a swift conclusion, the cohesion of the moment could certainly fade, leaving the continent back where it was a month ago. But as my colleague Noah Millman has recently argued, that kind of rapid resolution is unlikely. And the longer the conflict lasts, the more likely it will be that new habits of unity and resolve will become entrenched and codified in institutions for the continent's common defense.

It so happens that such institutions won't have to be built from scratch. They're already present in the form of NATO itself. The EU and NATO have considerable overlap in membership, though not entirely. In the current situation, with enemy artillery and tens of thousands of Russian troops fighting their way across a country on the periphery of the bloc, such division seems increasingly absurd.

Just this week, the European Parliament responded with enthusiasm to Ukraine's application for membership to the EU. The tiny country of Georgia, directly on Russia's border, is pursuing membership as well. What sense will it make to admit these countries to the economic and political institutions of Europe without also extending them security guarantees? It would be like the United States admitting two new states while declaring the American military would do nothing to defend them if attacked. That isn't the behavior of a coherent political entity, and it will have to change.

The simplest way to do it would be for NATO to meld organizationally with the EU, effectively becoming a ready-made Ministry of Continental Defense for the European Union. Countries already in the EU or joining in the future would have to become automatic members of NATO. Over the past week, two EU member nations (Finland and Sweden) have warmed to idea of such a move. If both join, that would leave Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta as the sole EU members holding out from participating in NATO as well.

As for countries in NATO but not in in the union (Albania, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, the U.S., and, since 2020, the United Kingdom), their decision-making about ascension to the EU would vary according to different geographic and political realities. The important thing is that they would at the very least be invited to remain treaty allies to the EU, committed to participating in common defense in the event of an attack on a member nation. 

That's especially crucial for the United States, which contributes substantial numbers of troops to (and a significant chunk of funding for) the alliance. With NATO more explicitly becoming the EU's common defense force, those contributions should decline over time, though that process neither should nor would begin as long as Russia's operations in Ukraine continue and tensions along NATO's eastern flank remain high.

But the longer-term trajectory is clear. The European Union has never thought and acted more like a coherent political entity than it's doing right now. That should be encouraged to continue, and it likely will. As it does, the EU will keep evolving toward becoming a fully autonomous super-state — a liberal multinational empire that takes increasing responsibility for its own defense.

Thanks, Vladimir Putin. They couldn't have done it without you.

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