The Values of Europe (Mini-series): Promoting and Defending European Values

Dr Mart Kuldkepp highlights the values that European institutions have promoted on a national and international stage and argues that, in response to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, Europe must now be ready to defend these values by force of arms if necessary.

The topic of ‘European values’ can be a tricky one to unpack. Are there any values that are specifically ‘European’, rather than just human or universal? Conversely, does ascribing ‘Europeanness’ to some values imply that they do not belong to those outside of (our) definition of ‘Europe’? Inclusiveness tends to suffer when one goes down the route of self-imposed geographical limitations, especially in a normative context.

But there is another way of approaching the issue, which is to consider the institutions that Europe has developed, and the aspirations that they have come to represent as actors in national and international politics. What makes some values European is not just the fact that Europe has them, but the fact that it actively promotes them. Indeed, standing up for certain values is what makes the European project attractive, and gives it a dynamism demonstrated most recently by the EU granting official candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.

Peaceful conflict resolution, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law

What are European values then? Certainly, the most fundamental one, going back to the European Steel and Coal Community created in 1950, is peaceful conflict resolution. At the root of the post-World War II European project was the idea that there should be no more war in Europe, and that this could be achieved through economic interdependence. This value has held up well – no two European Union member states have ever gone to war against each other.

The second European value, which has had a major tangible impact on the lives of millions of Europeans is prosperity. By externally encouraging free trade and standing up against protectionism, and by internal economic integration, the European Union has developed a form of economic regionalism that is easily the most advanced in the world, going beyond the more common formats of free trade areas and customs unions towards an (as yet incomplete) monetary and political union. Every citizen of a European Union member state has benefitted from EU economic policies, whether they realise it or not.

To facilitate peaceful conflict resolution and prosperity, European institutions must by necessity also promote democracy and rule of law, which are the only principles guaranteeing peaceful transfer of power and a predictable operating environment for businesses and citizens alike. The worth of these values should be self-evident, but, as we know, they have been contested by right-wing populism. It is crucial that European institutions bolster their ability to deal with backsliding in these areas, and recent developments such as the moves to introduce some conditionality as regards the disbursement of EU funds, do give some cause for hope.

“An economic giant, a political dwarf, a military worm”

There are, however, areas where European integration is comparatively underdeveloped and where its value base is weaker, as has indeed long been recognised. In 1991, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Eyskens famously stated that ‘Europe was an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm.’ Since then, the dwarf has grown taller, but it is fair to say that the worm has raised its head only very recently: in the last four months since the beginning of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

There are historical reasons why this is so. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, establishing the European Union, was concluded in the post-Cold War atmosphere of desecuritisation and eagerness to enjoy the so-called peace dividend after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this is no longer the environment we are operating in. There is no way around the fact that unprovoked interstate aggression with the goal of destroying another state requires a military response. Only through defeat in the battlefield can a criminal aggressor be incentivised to make concessions.

Europe’s next fundamental challenge will be adjustment to the reality that not all conflict resolution can be peaceful, and that sometimes we have no other choice but to stand up for our values by force of arms – in 2022, just as in 1939-1945. Currently, Ukraine is holding the front line, so the least that other Europeans can do is to help them. But the systemic challenge that illiberal autocratic regimes pose to European values is not going to go away any time soon. We must be ready to defend European values, militarily if necessary, because they are too precious to be lost.

Dr Mart Kuldkepp is an Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics and Head of the Department of European and International Social and Political Studies at UCL.

This blog forms part of a mini-series on European values, including contributions on this subject from EU Ambassadors to the UK and UCL academics, running from 28 June-8 July 2022. It follows a UCL-convened Ambassadorial roundtable on the values of Europe. A recording of the full event is available here.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo credit: Eero Vabamägi, Postimees

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