Why Europe Needs Ukraine

Ukrainians have fought not only for their own country, but also for Europe, giving the EU a powerful reminder of why it was founded in the first place.

A European Union flag with a yellow brush of paint over it
The Atlantic

About the author: Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and the author of Humankind.

If you want to know how powerful the European dream still is, don’t go to Paris or Rome, Brussels or Berlin—go to Kyiv. Last October, I visited the city to speak with young and ambitious Ukrainians. They told me of their deepest wish for their country: membership in the European Union.

For these young people, the EU was synonymous with democracy and freedom, progress and prosperity. When I told them that most students in my native country, the Netherlands, find the EU boring and bureaucratic, they reacted with disbelief. In the past few weeks, I have thought a lot about those Ukrainian students. What we take for granted, they and their compatriots have been willing to die for.

Since the start of the Russian invasion, in February, millions of Ukrainians have fought not only for their own country, but also for Europe. They have given the EU a powerful reminder of why it was founded in the first place.

After World War II, the realization grew that we must work together; “Never again” became our motto. What started in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community grew into today’s EU. But how quickly we got used to it. Every milestone of civilization begins as a utopian ideal, but once the dream becomes a reality, we forget how impossible change once seemed. And those who forget become complacent.

That’s how a union of 28 member states—now 27—began to drift from its ideals. We preached human rights while we violated those of asylum seekers at our borders. We rolled out one austerity measure after another at a time when investments were desperately needed. In Northern Europe, leaders lost their sense of solidarity with those in the south, and in the south, democracy was suspended while technocrats took over.

This is what you get when you consider the EU as a purely economic project, instead of a community with shared values. We heard German politicians complain about lazy Greeks, when in reality the Greeks have the longest working week in Europe. We heard Dutch politicians grumble that southerners should collect more taxes, when in fact the Netherlands is one of the largest tax havens in the world. And we heard Brits complain about, well, everything before they finally left.

And yet, in precisely those years following the European debt crisis a decade ago, the zeitgeist began to shift, helping remind those in Europe of its ideals and its potential. Nowhere was that more evident than in the fight against global warming. A 16-year-old schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, started a lonely protest next to the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, after which a movement was born, helping put climate change at the center of subsequent European elections.

Scientists told us that a total transformation of the economy was necessary, one that would be technically possible, but “unprecedented in terms of scale.” Many leaders around the globe have sought to rise to the challenge, and in the United States, politicians have coined a catchy phrase to sum up what the world needs: a Green New Deal. Americans have always been better than us at speeches about hope and change. Here in Europe, we think you have a screw loose if you sing “Ode to Joy,” the official European anthem. Preach “God bless Europe,” as American politicians do for the U.S., and we call the doctor. It has been no different when it comes to climate policy.

In early 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez read the entire text of the Green New Deal in the House of Representatives. More than a year had passed since she’d introduced the resolution, but on Twitter, someone put an epic tune under it and she went viral once again. The contrast with the “Green Deal” speech by European Commissioner Frans Timmermans could hardly have been greater. The European Parliament was virtually empty when, a few months earlier, he’d spoken about Europe’s climate plans. Timmermans read John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 “Man on the Moon” speech from his phone, which was followed by lukewarm applause and the legislature’s chair, an Italian, muttering “Grazie, grazie.”

When it comes to presentation, we could learn a thing or two from the Americans. But when it comes to action, it’s the other way around. The American Green New Deal was a wish list with few practical details. The European Green Deal is an ambitious and elaborate plan that is being worked out into thousands of pages of laws, rules, and procedures, the implementation of which has already started and for which broad support exists among Europeans.

To put it bluntly: The EU is light-years ahead of the U.S., and indeed much of the world, in the fight against climate change. The emissions of the average European are less than half of those of the average American, a discrepancy that has a lot to do with European cooperation. Think of our “Ecodesign” legislation, which obliges manufacturers to make their products more sustainable. The effect has been gigantic; in 2020, it saved more than 1,000 terawatt-hours of energy. That is equivalent to closing more than 250 coal-fired power plants.

Look at our seemingly boring “emissions-trading system,” the largest in the world; it now covers more than half of the European economy and is starting to work better and better. Or take our train network, one of the most finely integrated in the world. If anything embodies the European dream, it is travel by train. France began operating its first high-speed TGV trains in 1981; 40 years later, the U.S. still does not have a single high-speed line. Consider also the design of our cities. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are two of the best cycling cities in the world, and metropolises like Paris, Barcelona, and Milan now have radical plans to give their streets back to pedestrians and cyclists as well.

Silicon Valley develops the algorithms that make us click on as many ads as possible and Wall Street the financial products that brought our economy to the brink of collapse. Europe’s innovation is more sustainable.

The price of solar and wind energy has dropped drastically in recent years, the result of political decisions—European political decisions. Thanks to Germany’s Energiewende, solar energy has become much cheaper. Or take the Danish wind industry, which builds the largest turbines in the world. That modern white wind turbine with three blades? It is known as the “Danish concept.”

Europe is also leading the way in terms of international cooperation. The EU played a major role in establishing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. As the largest economic bloc in the world, the EU has the power to enforce global standards. Political scientists call this the “Brussels effect”: If we write a law prescribing that, for example, refrigerators should consume less energy, then manufacturers around the world are forced to follow that law, because it is too expensive to make different versions of each product. They would rather make one that meets the standards of the largest single market on the planet.

So maybe we have to borrow catchy terms like Green New Deal from the Americans, and quote a JFK speech when we have something cool in mind. And a lot is still wrong in Europe: We’ve become addicted to cheap Russian gas, neglected our defense, and too often blamed the failures of our national politicians on Brussels “Eurocrats.”

Yet there is a reason the majority of young Britons never wanted out of the EU, and now want back in. There is a reason Ukrainian students, like the ones I met, have been dreaming of EU membership for years.

The new generation realizes that Europe can and should be a beacon for the world; that the era of visionless austerity is over and that we must start investing on a huge scale; that we need solidarity between rich and poor, young and old, north and south, east and west; that there is no inevitable trade-off between national sovereignty and European integration, but rather we all become stronger if we work together. Our remarkable progress on combatting climate change illustrates not only our technical prowess in setting standards and fine-tuning regulation, but also our values—of investment, of solidarity, of cooperation.

Let’s not forget that the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea began after Kyiv moved forward on an association agreement with the EU. Ukrainians were presented with a simple choice between Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial model and the democratic model of the EU. That choice was easily made. Prior to 2014, Ukrainian exports were evenly distributed to the EU and Russia; in the years that followed, exports to the EU doubled, and those to Russia atrophied. More and more Ukrainians traveled to EU member states, not least because visas were no longer required.

Ukraine, in short, chose Europe. And Putin found that intolerable. Now it is up to us to choose Ukraine. Yes, normally the road to EU membership is long and complicated, and with good reason. But these are not normal times. Millions of brave Ukrainians have reinvigorated the European ideal—of freedom, democracy, and cooperation—and many have paid with their lives.

We owe it to our values and principles to stop importing Russian gas as soon as possible, to support the Ukrainian fight for independence in every way, to generously receive refugees, and to launch a European Marshall Plan—there’s another American term we can borrow—for rebuilding Ukraine when the war is over. Finally, we must open the door for Ukraine to join us in the EU.

In the darkness of this war, one thing is certain: Ukraine’s future lies in Europe. Our joint future lies in Europe. Or as an American would say: “Ich bin ein Europäer.”


This piece is adapted from an essay initially published in Dutch on De Correspondent.