With War in Ukraine, ‘European Values’ Must Be Protected! Alright, but Which Ones?

Thierry Chopin

4 mins - 23 de Mayo de 2023, 07:00

The return of war to the European continent plunges Europe back into the “tragedy of history”. On the European scale, the conflict in Ukraine is a war between two opposing types of political regimes and an “endurance test for the EU” and democratic regimes” (in Ivan Krastev’s recent words). Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen is unambiguous: “It is a war against our energy security, against our economy, against our values, and against our future. A war of autocracy against democracy (...) the road to strong democracies and the road to our Union are one and the same.”

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But what ‘values’ are we talking about? The debate on ‘European values’ is often affected by confusion between two or three dimensions: legal and political on the one hand, and social on the other. In Central Europe in general and in Poland in particular, Putin’s war in Ukraine is strongly perceived as a confrontation between dictatorship and democracy. However, the ability to play a geopolitical role should not be dissociated from the unity of the community of law that is the European Union and the cohesion around the political and legal principles on which it is based. The tension between the defence of democratic ‘values’ abroad and the illiberal temptation within many European countries, both East and West, must be questioned.

Moreover, the paradoxical use of ‘European values’ likewise can be observed in the cultural and social domains. The current trends of national sovereignism attack not only the principles of political liberalism, but also the social values of cultural liberalism, which are accused of being the cause of the disappearance of traditional values and national identity. This conservative, even reactionary discourse is sometimes strongly echoed in the discourses of Central and Eastern European governments, especially in Hungary and Poland, but also in Italy. Although the form and rhetoric are often different, these remarks may present a kind of ideological convergence with those made by the Russian President on the denunciation of the EU as a Trojan horse of an anti-religious modernity carrying values and social choices presented as a source of decadence and eventual destruction of what should be the ‘true’ European identity.

The European ‘values’ referred to here are in fact the legal and political ‘principles’ derived from political liberalism, just as developed throughout European history and affirmed since the Enlightenment: fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, equality of all before the law, the rule of law, representative democracy, and so forth. These principles are embodied in the political project of European integration, which takes the form of a community based on law and not simply an alliance between sovereign states that cannot guarantee the permanence of the established peace. They are historical, political, and geopolitical causes, from which these ‘principles’ derive, that unite the states and citizens of the European Union. This is the founding ‘value’ of Europe: the Union first made peace and anchored liberal democracy before making force. In other words, the founding principles of the European Union lie in the need to remain united politically and geopolitically, and to guard against the return of authoritarian or even totalitarian temptations, both internal and external. Europeans feel European to the extent that they know that their past and future histories are inseparable and that they constitute a community of destiny.

The requirement for consensus on the EU’s political and legal principles is a necessity and cannot tolerate any differentiation. It is not only an indispensable condition for ensuring the internal cohesion of the Union but also its capacity to face external geopolitical challenges: European ‘power’ is, thus, inseparable from the feeling of ‘belonging’ linked to respect for the political and legal principles that underpin the existence of the EU and the (geo)political identity of Europeans. If European solidarity, perceptible in the decisions taken by the EU and in the support of European public opinion since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, is strong enough to prevail and prove effective protection against a potential invader, a sufficiently strong bond will be created between member states for consensus on these principles to be strengthened, at least so that partial dissent does not endanger the entire structure.

The op-ed has been published in French in La Croix

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