Not far south of Brussels is the village of Waterloo. In the museum of the battle there is one painting that should touch the heart of even the most cynical Eurosceptic. It depicts the French cavalry attacking one of the diamond-shaped British infantry positions. The field in front of the diamond is so thickly covered with bodies that the horses are unwilling to charge, refusing to step on the corpses.
The historic achievement of the European Union is that it brought lasting peace, prosperity, democracy and respect of human rights to a continent whose nations waged wars with each other for centuries. Only in the last two centuries blood was shed in the Napoleonic wars, Franco-German wars, Balkan wars, and Crimean war, not to mention the massacres of the First and Second World Wars. Since 1945 most Europeans have been enjoying the longest period of peace in its history.
In a sense the European Union put an end to a thousand year old problem on how to divide the Lotharingia part of the Charlemagne legacy for which France and Germany have been fighting ever after. It made partners out of former competitors for colonial power and brought former parts of empires as independent states under the same roof again.
But not all of Europe enjoyed the peace and not all the European nations are enjoying the end of history. The peace in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia, looks fragile, but with a clear European perspective for all major players in the region, the situation appears defused.
On the other hand, even today the citizens of Ukraine are struggling to obtain what is taken for granted by the rest of Europe. It looks like one of those “us” vs. “them” conflicts where the players on the geopolitical chessboard are moving pieces to win positions. The people of Ukraine are just pawns in this match. The people of Belarus or Moldova could find themselves in a similar predicament. It is exactly the board that has been replaced – for western and central European countries – by negotiation tables around the Schuman roundabout in Brussels.
Russia has been an increasingly important player in European affairs over the last 500 years. It decidedly chose to become European with Peter the Great in the early 18th century. The Russian empire took European center stage during the Napoleonic wars and became one of the three key elements of the Holy Alliance that the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires set up to maintain “justice, love and peace” after the defeat of Napoleon. Wars for the lands between Russia and Germany or Turkey resembled the wars for the lands between Germany and France. The latter conflict was made obsolete with the creation of the European Union.
In 2008 the European Council set up a Reflection Group to think about the future of Europe. One of the questions it was expected to answer was about where the borders of European Union should lie. The group, led by the former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, concluded that “the EU must stay open to potential new members from Europe, assessing every candidacy on its own merits and compliance with the membership criteria.” Compliance with membership criteria, it claimed, were “in fact the true limits of Europe.”
The recent events in Ukraine are a reminder that the European project is not finished. Historical experience in the European West and parallels to the European East challenge the introverted Europeans to think the unthinkable.
Russia should be encouraged to comply with EU membership criteria, with the principles of democracy, market economy and human rights on which the European Union is built. Since Peter the Great, Russia has had European ambitions. The European Union should make it clear that these ambitions are realistic and that potentially the true limits of the European Union could be on the Russian Pacific coast. Not tomorrow. Another former superpower, Great Britain, became EU member half a century after it lost its superpower status.
Europe must immediately do whatever it takes to stop the violence in Ukraine. On the longer term, however, the issue is not whether Ukraine should be in the Russian or European sphere of influence. The issue are the European perspectives of Russia, and all the countries at its western borders.