The anatomy of Europe’s leaderless unity

Kadri Liik, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR.

When Russia launched its war on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, many expected European unity to be one of the early casualties. It seemed almost inevitable that though Europe might be united in condemning the war, in practical policy it would be split between risk-aware West and high-principled East.

This has not happened. One year on, Europe does have its differences and its debates, but it is not split, much less paralyzed: its overall policy direction remains largely the same; the differences there tend to concern the pace, rather than the direction of travel. ECFR’s recent study of policy-makers’ views in the EU member states helps to shed some light on how that European unity is shaped and maintained.

In stark difference with the period after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, when Germany acted as a country that consolidated and shaped European positions, Europe’s current unity appears leaderless. No country emerges as a focal point: while Germany, France, and Poland all get some votes for the role (6, 4 and 2 respectively), neither of them appears as a dominant power. Instead, responsibility is more evenly divided across the EU, with different countries playing different roles in forming common policies.

The ambivalence of Germany

One can see that Germany still has considerable gravitational pull – six member states view it as an EU leader, while many others mention it as one of their preferred partners. However, nowadays Germany’s attractiveness is not in its steering power: it is not seen as a country that thinks ahead and shapes policies.

Germany’s domestic debates and occasionally bumpy policy process are there for all to see, but while it might make Berlin an EU laggard in some countries’ eyes, it actually inspires a sense of affinity in many other countries that have similar domestic debates and/or clashing views across the political spectrum. In Germany, they see themselves, and this gives Berlin’s policies – even if wobbly – weight in their eyes.

Poland and the Baltic States in ‘moral leadership’ role

Poland and the Baltic states have a strong claim for what one could call a “moral leadership”: a number of countries view their uncompromising and maximalist stance as a beacon that signals a perfect principled position. Still, this is not easily translated into true leadership in the field of policy-making. For one, these countries themselves are not experienced in steering EU policies. As admitted by a Polish expert – “we are very good in articulating a moral position, but not very good in figuring out what to do, and building coalitions around our desired action.”

Secondly, the Polish-Baltic maximalism can also be scary. A number of countries – mostly smaller ones and further South – view them as utterly focused on punishing Russia, while paying little attention to the interests of other EU members, and, what is worse, being recklessly dismissive of the possibility that Russia might escalate and drag NATO into an all-out war. For them, Germany’s cautiousness is something that inspires a sense of trust and safety. They feel that if Berlin moves – to a tougher stance on Russia – they can move too.

The West cannot change Russia

And finally, France. In a way, France’s position on Russia has always stood in some contrast with those of both Germany and Poland, along with the Baltic states. For a long time, the latter sought to change Russia, to democratize it, though they chose different means to achieve that: where Germany relied on the carrot on a stick named trade and dialogue, Poland and the Baltics resorted to the stick of criticism.

France, at the same time, has always been more inclined to accept that Russia is as it is – the West cannot change Russia but needs to manage the relationship. This position also finds some followership today, especially in Europe’s South. “Emphasis on the importance of multilateralism and diplomacy, while condemning Russia for the invasion” – this position, as summed up by one of ECFR’s researchers, makes France attractive to a number of countries, mostly in its neighborhood, but not exclusively.

The new coalitions in the EU

One can also observe a number of networks at play in the EU. Some of these are interest-based: as the costs of the war affect different member states differently, (temporary) coalitions emerge that unite countries that have shared interests on one issue or another.

Some of these are traditional: It is customary for big member states to have frequent consultations among themselves, for the Nordic-Baltic networks to compare notes, and for the Mediterraneans to have their own discussions (with the Visegrad group being somewhat disabled by the outlier position of Hungary).

But one can also observe less usual networks at lay: Austria, Ireland and Malta, for instance, look at one another to figure out what would be a fitting position for formally neutral, but morally minded EU countries to take. At the same time, Finland and Sweden – close partners anyway – find themselves in intensified collaboration given their simultaneous bids to join NATO. The Czech Republic and Slovakia get lauded from different corners as the countries who have used their meager military and diplomatic resources notably well: to support Ukraine and to bridge the East-West differences in the EU.

And the EU as a whole possesses strong gravitational pull: Many countries, especially those further away from Russia acknowledge that whatever their opinions, they will in the end go with the EU mainstream.

USA and Russia as major influencing factors

Finally, two outside powers have played a strong role in shaping the EU consensus and policies. One is the US: The leadership offered by the Biden administration earns applause from a diverse array of EU member states; its approach that combines support for Ukraine with careful escalation management is one behind which pretty much all EU members are happy to line up.

But secondly, one needs to mention Russia. The Russian military’s brutal behavior in Ukraine and President Putin’s evident reluctance to review his maximalist war aims have stripped many potentially negotiation-minded countries of arguments and helped make supporting Ukraine the main, if not the sole focus of the EU’s current policy.


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