Ukraine in the EU: Making the Impossible Happen – An Interview with Ivan Krastev

Although the task would be monumentally challenging, integration should be the centre of European policy

24 March 2023

Wojciech Przybylski


To continue the discussion of the Future of Europe after the war, we follow up on last month’s interview with Timothy Garton Ash to focus on European developments inside and out with Ivan Krastev.

Visegrad insight sat down for a conversation with Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM), to discuss with him the significance of the war for Europe and the prospects of Ukraine’s EU membership under the circumstances. The interview is abridged from the recent Visegrad Insight Podcast. Listen to the whole discussion with Ivan Krastev here:

Wojciech Przybylski: In our recent conversation, Timothy Garton Ash stated that, in essence, he believes in European power. Do you believe that Europe is a power? And if it is, what sort of power does it represent?

Ivan Krastev: It was just in the wake of the United States’ war in Iraq when the then-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said that America is a power and Europe is an experience.

One result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine is that it revealed the extent to which Europe has taken peace for granted. From this point of view, it questions some of the major assumptions on which the security policy of the European Union has been based. Secondly, it returned to the idea of the West at the centre of global politics.

I have also been reading a lot of opinion polls, both in Europe and outside, and two things are very clear. Those Europeans who believed in the European Union now feel even stronger about the Union than it was before (the war); at the same time, there is a core belief that the United States is stronger than they believed it was as well.

Outside of the West, in most countries, people don’t make major distinctions between the United States and European Union, particularly regarding Ukraine. So from this point of view to the extent that Europe is a power, it’s still much more part of the Western power (structure) than a power of its own.

That kills the idea of President Macron’s defining Europe as autonomous. Is Europe a power, and if yes, what sort of power?

Listen, it’s very difficult for the moment, but could it be different in the future? It could be because the popularity of Macron’s idea of Europe as a sovereign power was related to the fact that the European Union – between 2016 and 2020 – faced a very different United States. The Trump moment brought about the idea of the sovereign European Union. So the idea of Europe as an autonomous power spoke to the hearts of many.

From this point of view, at least to a certain extent, this loss of appeal for Europe or for the European Union as a sovereign power is related mainly to the fact that the United States is now acting in a way Europeans remember from the days of the Cold War.

It’s interesting to see what it means for Europe and for European unity, which is very strong, but it is also the result of the US position. At the moment, I don’t believe European sovereignty is at the centre of the agenda.

Also, it is important to keep several things in mind with the European understanding of security (after) our global international order had been put into question.

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First, Europeans believed – probably Germans believed stronger than others – that economic interdependence is enough to prevent war, at least a major war. Now, we know that when it does not work, economic interdependence becomes a major source of vulnerability.

It was enough to see the energy dependency that Europe has developed with respect to Russia to understand that the moment when the situation goes wrong, economic interdependence is not decreasing the risk of war but is increasing it.

The second (belief about security), which Europeans have been betting on, was that military power doesn’t matter. This (idea) came from the fact that while America was militarily so powerful, it hadn’t been able to achieve much in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

It is not that European ideas lacked a kind of effectual material. But now, when the war started, it was revealed that, basically, the military potential of the European Union is very unimpressive.

We talk a lot about the fact that there is political reluctance for certain weapons to reach Ukraine, but one of the major reasons that countries are not giving weaponry is because they don’t have it. And this is not simply about military budgets or weapons. It is also that we Europeans have managed to convince ourselves we are living in a post-war world.

A cultural shift is needed to change this, and it is not there. For Europe, the challenge is even tougher than for Ukraine or Russia or the United States with respect to the importance of military power, as the (perspective) is very different.

But we have heard about Zeitenwende; there is an ongoing divergence between Poland and Germany…to put it mildly. Conversely, you had defined this difference in the strategic culture by the opinion poll done a year ago. In this poll, you had an ambiguous differentiation between peace and justice. How can you compare these two ideas? These are of two different orders; the terms come from different worlds. But I think what you are trying to say is that we don’t have a strategic culture on the European level, is that correct?

That’s the basic story. A year ago, there were two groups of people and two groups of countries. For one, the most important was when the war was going to end. For the other, it was how the war was going to end.

One group believes that peace is not possible without justice; basically, peace can only be achieved when Ukraine manages to regain its territories. Others believe that the most important factor is ending the war, regardless of circumstances. One year later, we had a similar poll with the same questions. You can see major changes; support for the “justice parties”, those who believe that peace will only be sustainable if Ukraine wins the war, has increased, most dramatically in Germany.

Several things explain this shift. When people see and look at the profile of the people who said the most important thing is when the war is going to end, of course, among them, there was a kind of a pro-Russian faction, but there were also people who believed that Ukraine could never win. For them, a long war means more destruction and more victims without the prospect of winning. It was Ukrainian military victories of the summer and autumn of the last year that became the major argument for changing the view of people in places like Germany but also France.

At the moment, support for that peace means Ukrainian victory is as high among the Macron supporters in France as among the peace supporters. So from this point, this is a major convergence, (but) of course, there are countries like Italy and Romania where the constellations are slightly different.

Also, at the beginning of the war, Russia was perceived as unbeatable. So, there is (now) the idea that Russia is probably weaker than we believed.

As you mentioned in your question, for some countries, two things are becoming critically important. Firstly, it’s a cultural change. I was told that for many years, people serving in the German army go in civilian clothes when they go to work. And they and put on their uniforms only when they were within the limits of the military base. It is because the army was so unpopular. You can change budgets, but you should also try to change the way people view the army (and) how they view the risk of war.

A strong European Union is not simply equal to stronger national armies. The level of cooperation between Germany and Poland, and you’ve said this before, is as important for the European Union now as it was between Germany and France in the 1950s. And by the way, to what extent this kind of war is going to give more incentives for creating a European military-industrial complex is a great question.

This is something that increases your defence capabilities; the possibility to be able not simply to buy weapons but to produce weapons which are the same. The fact that Europe has so many different standards of tanks and so on is not making life easier for the Ukrainians.

And there is also one more point that you make.

I do believe that there is something that is less discussed, but I found critically important. There were major divisions between the nationalists and the cosmopolitan liberal public after the financial crisis and through the refugee crisis as well. What happened with this war is that for very complex reasons, you have reconciliation between liberals and nationalists on different levels.

On one level, Europe is a post-national project. Suddenly, Europeans fell in love with Ukrainian nationalism because they saw the mobilising power of the national sentiment. So while in 2014, Maidan was about European influence in the centre of Kyiv, 2022 was about Ukrainian influence in all the capitals of Europe. There was one national language that we could speak and certainly, this one was Ukrainian.

In the survey from European Council on Foreign Relations, the nationalistic parties like the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) and others, who have (previously) seen Brussels as the only and most important enemy, suddenly realised that the problem was not that the European Union is too strong, but that it is not strong enough.

There is a repositioning occurring, but it does not mean that they are going to want a more federalised Europe. This realignment is happening in many places; some of these parties which used to have a very sympathetic view of President Putin just three or four years ago are really dramatically changing their positions.

Our report mentions that the ceasefire might be one of the greatest dangers. What we see now is a new sort of a Pax Americana – while these developments take place, it is still Washington that rules the day. What we will probably experience in the coming moments, even with the next president of the US, is very much the same. 

So what are the strengths where Europe can define itself until it achieves a level of strategic culture in terms of defence? 

Suppose American elections are going to be perceived as a competition between the pro-Ukrainian party led by President Biden or any other Democrat and the anti-war party led by President Trump. And there is not going to be a bipartisan consensus in the United States. In that case, it could be very damaging to European unity.

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This process of reconciling specific nationalistic and liberal trends could be put into question. The weakness of so-called anti-war parties in Europe is that they don’t have a legitimate leader. Strangely enough, I don’t know how many leftist German pacifists will be happy to see Donald Trump as the leader of their party, but this could be the reality.

While the United States is very focused and involved in the war in Ukraine, for them, the primary priority is still China. This puts Europe under pressure to start decoupling from Beijing, probably at a speed Europe was unprepared for. And, of course, economic decoupling from China is incomparable to decoupling with Russia. China is the biggest trade partner for countries like Germany. So, this new transatlantic unity will have a cost.

From this point of view, enlargement is going to be critically important. The great American historian Stephen Kotkin said that if Ukraine is not ready or able to recover all of the territories Russia has controlled, the only thing that can legitimise any compromise on the Ukrainian side will be membership in the European Union.

This will be the centre of European policies because integrating a country at war and the size of Ukraine looks almost impossible. The only thing that looks just as impossible is not integrating it.

Enlargement towards Ukraine entails the consolidation of Europe. Still, it also means Moldova, brings into question relations with the Caucasus, and it also means consolidating European power in the Western Balkans.

It requires a total rethinking and reinvention of the European project. In my view, the idea that we are talking about enlargement in the way we know it is a utopian version. You will not integrate a place like Ukraine by opening one chapter [of enlargement negotiations] after the other, especially since it will not even be a post-war period.


This article has been prepared in the framework of a cooperation programme between major press titles in Central Europe led by Visegrad Insight at the Res Publica Foundation.

This discussion is an abridged version from our podcast, found here; segments have been edited, shortened for brevity and reconfigured for cohesion.

Featured image of Ivan Krastev by Galan Dall using “Jahrestagung der Grünen Akademie, 25. J and Ivan Krastev” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by boellstiftung.

Wojciech Przybylski


Political analyst heading Visegrad Insight's policy foresight on European affairs. His expertise includes foreign policy and political culture. Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and President of the Res Publica Foundation. Europe's Future Fellow at IWM - Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and Erste Foundation. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. He has been published in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Journal of Democracy, EUObserver, Project Syndicate, VoxEurop, Hospodarske noviny, Internazionale, Zeit, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Onet, Gazeta Wyborcza and regularly appears in BBC, Al Jazeera Europe, Euronews, TRT World, TVN24, TOK FM, Swedish Radio and others.

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