Peace is more than a legal construct. It is also a lived experience. In Europe, it is largely unconsciously sustained by people enjoying the fruits of radical ideas and processes introduced decades ago. Many authoritarian leaders find them threatening even today.
The reality of people making a difference
As a small child about to be yanked off a train due to cross from West Berlin into East Germany and then across West Germany en route to Ostend, I learned that people power mattered. The East German border guards checking passports insisted on taking me off the train without my grandmother for ‘processing’ with other ‘aliens’ lacking appropriate stamps in their passports.
My grandmother had learned the hard way to stand up to Nazi bullies and stood her ground while I tearfully screamed for my father in London. But it was the collective remonstrations of passengers in the adjacent train that resulted in a heavily armed Russian commandant boarding our carriage. Long story short – he dismissed the border guards, gestured to everyone not to say a thing, and our train moved on.
The former German chancellor and mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, knew how people power could eventually bring peace and reconciliation to a divided Germany. At the height of the cold war in the 1960s, his political strategy was to sustain people’s family ties and connections and gradually let them mobilise to overcome division, including the Berlin Wall. All regimes are ultimately temporary and passing on values from one generation to the next transcends them.
Why is the EU a threat to Russia?
Whether governments choose to recognise it or not, the EU is also sustained by people power.
So why was it, and is it, seen as such a threat by Russia?
The answer lies with the radicalism behind the creation of what is now the European Union. This radicalism is not simply the product of setting up and sustaining western-style liberal democracies on Russia’s borders. Its roots and unspoken goals threaten any political class that cannot appreciate the advantages arising from sharing power for mutual benefit.
Historically, the underlying idea behind European unification was that economics be used to make states interdependent and show people that working together across borders could make it impossible for governments unilaterally and secretly to build war machines against each other. It could bring peace, relative stability and prosperity. To prevent any one government becoming dominant, a technocratic body was put in charge of setting policy priorities. Governments were there to endorse or reject them. The people didn’t need to love the technocrats. They just needed to experience life together freed from the nationalism that had led to war.
This also meant that if faced with a nationalistic leader hell-bent on going-it alone without due regard to his or her partners, the people’s loyalty to the leader could not be taken for granted. After all, what tangible benefits could they or their state offer by itself that – in Europe’s case – the EU couldn’t?
This strategy worked, albeit imperfectly. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1990, neutral states like Sweden, Finland and Austria joined the EU, followed by several former client states of the disintegrating Soviet Union.
European Union civilian power
Equally radical was the idea that the EU was not about military defence. It always portrayed itself as a civilian power lacking territorial ambitions and military capabilities. Its sights were on removing barriers within the group. The roots of the single market and freedom of movement run that deep. Providing defence support to Ukraine is a watershed moment.
However, the Soviet Union and Russia have historically seen the EU as a threat to totalitarian or communist ways of governance. Therefore, when Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the disintegrating former Yugoslavia clamoured to join the EU, former Soviet and Russian leaders interpreted this as rejection of their way of life. It was and is.
The rejection is not simply political. Blind ‘loyalty’ to the leader can’t be magicked up and sustained if freedoms others enjoy are not on offer and realised. And while alternative lifestyles aren’t military threats, such aspirations are seen as posing an existential threat that governments can’t readily control. Cuts to freedom are a sign that the governments have already lost the battle where their own people are concerned. The people’s hearts and minds are not theirs for taking.
The lesson of Ukraine
Inside the EU, there has been much soul-searching about sustaining European values and opening democratic participation to all. This is exemplified by the Conference on the Future of Europe that seeks inputs from ordinary citizens as the EU looks forward to reforming how it works to accommodate the desires of rising generations.
So when Ukraine proclaimed that it shares EU values, it shook our complacency and reminded us how freedom matters. Freedom of expression, freedom to move around Europe freely, to share and to give voice to new ideas and to treat each other with mutual respect are more than ideals. They are central to our way of life. And even in 2022, they are profoundly radical and subversive.
When President Zelensky gave notice of applying for full membership of the EU, and people within the EU responded with humanitarian aid and started campaigning for EU citizenship to be granted to Ukrainians fleeing war, we were reminded of just how radical and subversive of nationalism the European idea is. People embody the values tyrants most fear.
“Prove that you are Europeans – then light will win over darkness”President Zelensky to European Parliament 1 March 2022
Generations have learned that European integration is a peace process to take for granted until faced with external threats or worse the Russian special ops designed to undo the EU and destabilise the West. Since 1945, academics and leaders advised that faced with an external threat, integrating states would pull together. They underestimated the other element in the equation: people power. The most radical sanction against Russia now would be to grant EU citizenship to Ukrainian citizens, and unilaterally restore it to Brits. Offering it to fleeing Russians is also under consideration.
As Ukraine reminds us, our values transcend anachronistic borders. Is now the time when the peoples’ voices are heard and change is realised together?