Young European Parliamentarians’ Views on the Ukraine Crisis
Such a conflict would test their commitment both to European solidarity and to the transatlantic alliance. It will also prove a litmus test of their trust of the United States in the Biden era.
Young members of Europe’s national parliaments formed their world views after the Cold War. The threat that Russia might seize territory from another European nation was a 20th-century nightmare, not something they thought might disturb their 21st-century dreams. “Ten years ago, nobody expected the Kremlin to deploy and attack Ukraine,” observed a Law and Justice Party member of the Polish Sejm.
Now, with Russia poised to possibly invade Ukraine, young European politicians face some of the same stark choices that bedeviled their elders. To better understand the views of these young leaders, how their sentiments may differ from their governments, who they blame, what they want to do if Russia acts, and how they see the future, ten national parliamentarians from eight parties in seven nations—most under age 40—were interviewed.
How They See the Crisis
These young politicians harbor no illusions about the seriousness of the Ukraine crisis, Russian culpability, and what must be done. “We have to be clear,” said a Green Party member of the German Bundestag: “the integrity of Ukraine is threatened by the acts of Russia. And Germany and the EU have to stand on the side of Ukraine.”
These young politicians harbor no illusions about the seriousness of the Ukraine crisis, Russian culpability, and what must be done.
“This is the West against the bad guys, the illiberal regimes, and we should be on the right side of history,” said a member of the People’s Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, conveying the sentiment she hears from her party’s members.
There is widespread appreciation of the Biden administration’s commitment to European security and decision to send additional troops to Europe’s eastern flank. “Polish citizens are glad they are coming,” declared a Law and Justice Party Sejm member. “From our perspective, more is better.”
And these young leaders dismiss the idea that the United States, through its actions, has somehow escalated the crisis. “I don’t think the US is exaggerating,” said a member of the Bundestag from the Green Party, responding to such allegations from both the far left and the far right in European politics.
Some Wariness of the Official Narrative
Nevertheless, next-generation leaders harbor some doubts that implicitly question the Washington narrative that a Russian invasion may be imminent.
“I struggle to understand what Russia would gain from invading a vast nation,” opined a member of La République En Marche in the French National Assembly. “My instinct tells me it’s a stupid idea.”
“I don’t see what the Russians would achieve with a full-scale invasion,” agreed a Green Party member of the Bundestag.
And a People’s Party member of the Spanish Congress of Deputies hears from some voters that “maybe Putin is right, he is trying to defend his position. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the EU, so what are we doing there? This is not our war and Americans need something to say after Afghanistan to show that they are still strong.”
Moreover, such doubts, at least in the Balkans, are rooted in historical ties with Russia. “In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we traditionally have had good relations with Russia,” observed a Social Democratic Party member of the Serbian parliament. “To unilaterally attack Ukraine would not be in Russia’s self-interest. Maybe it would be necessary if Kyiv has a conflict with Donbas and Russia is forced to defend this area. The only possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine is if there is some kind of provocation in the east of Ukraine and Russia would have a reason to defend Donbas. Maybe the Russian border presence is due to threats in Donbas and the constant instability in the region and to put pressure on Ukrainian politics to implement the Minsk agreement.”
And some next generation leaders report wariness of US motives among their constituents.
“There is distrust of the Americans, that they are trigger-happy Yankees,” observed a Democratic Party member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. “I hear from the right wing close to Russia that you are escalating and that there are reasons for what Russia is doing.”
And such skepticism of the United States is hardly new. Poles have long distrusted US steadfastness in the face of the Russian bear. “You Americans have been so naive in the case of Russia,” complained a Law and Justice member of the Sejm. “All of your administrations, left or right, at least since Reagan, always think there can be a fresh start with Russia. Biden made the same mistake as Trump and took longer to understand that dialogue with Putin will not give the outcome we want.”
A few young parliamentarians report constituent suspicion of Washington’s role in the origins of the Ukraine crisis.
One off-the-wall conspiracy theory voiced by a sympathetic Democratic Party member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies is that “the Biden administration really wanted to open discussions on START and missiles and that may be part of the reason for escalation, to have an excuse for the two sides to meet.”
Notably, a few of the next-generation political leaders lamented a lack of constituent engagement on the Ukraine issue.
“Who in France thinks about Crimea today?” asked the En Marche member of the French National Assembly. “Most people in France could care less.”
“People are not that much into what is going on,” agreed a Socialist member of the Albanian parliament. “It’s a faraway place. It’s not in the Balkans, so it doesn’t really make the news.” And, lamented a Green Party member of the Bundestag who acknowledged she is not hearing from many constituents, “those who do email me are only those who want a softer stance on Russia.”
What Lies Ahead
Both the European Union and the United States have threatened “massive sanctions” if Russia invades or otherwise attacks Ukraine.
Next-generation political leaders generally support such action. “The Polish government will favor massive sanctions,” said a member of Poland’s Modern Party in the Sejm, “even if it costs the Polish economy. And the opposition will support them. In Poland, the discussion will be about why the sanctions are too weak.”
There is also awareness that any sanctions will have a disproportionate blowback on the European economy, particularly Germany, where natural gas prices rose 47 percent in 2021, even before the imposition of any sanctions on Russian gas. “The way the United States has proposed the sanctions, it would hit Europe the most and the US the least,” said a Green Party member of the Bundestag. Nevertheless, “our mailboxes are not full of opposition to sanctions.”
However, some young European parliamentarians question the utility of sanctions and their durability. “With Russia, you have certain experience that sanctions don’t work very well,” argued an En Marche member in the French National Assembly. “I don’t think sanctions are ineffective per se. On day one they are effective, but on day two you are beginning to think of how to lift them.”
“Sanctions have never deterred North Korea, China, or Belarus,” agreed a Socialist member of the Albanian parliament. “They usually have the opposite effect on the leader and turn the average person toward the leader.”
And Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline through the Baltic Sea that would bring gas to Germany, has become the poster child for US sanction demands and a source of potential tension between Americans and Germans.
Even before the Ukraine crisis, Germany’s Green Party opposed Nord Stream 2. But, admitted a Bundestag Green Party member, “things change when you are confronted with reality. Green voters also have to heat their houses.”
And it is not only German consumers who will bear the burden. “In Spain,” said a member of the People’s Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, “our economy is not dependent on gas from Russia. Our gas mainly comes from Algeria. The big problem for Spaniards is uncertainty. If we have a problem with gas in Europe, Germans will ask for gas from Algeria. Our prices for energy will go up, and they are already very high.”
At the very least, young European parliamentarians would like to see Americans share some of the burden of any future sanctions. “We don’t hear the United States say they will stop importing Russian uranium or oil,” complained a Green Party Bundestag member. “Let’s balance the burden a bit more. If the US is not part of the burden sharing, it will not be credible.”
And some Europeans expect something in return for standing with Washington if sanctions are imposed.
The Spanish People’s Party parliamentarian contends that in Spain’s government, there are those who believe: “We have nothing to do with Russia and Ukraine, but we need this relationship with the US. Our agenda is our problem with Morocco and if we are very active on Ukraine, the United States will support us with Morocco.”
A Threat to Alliance Solidarity?
In mid-January, French President Emmanuel Macron, the current rotating President of the European Union, told the European Parliament that “it is good for there to be coordination between Europe and the United States, but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia.” He has followed that up with direct talks about Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a revival of the Normandy Process, a European-led effort to peacefully resolve the Ukraine crisis involving France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia.
“After the Macron-Putin meeting,” said a People’s Party member of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, “I think the playing field is changing. Macron is looking for his own space in this crisis. He will play the role of the one who really goes for dialogue.”
Macron’s initiative is a practical implementation of his long-standing advocacy of European “strategic autonomy.” It comes in the wake of French frustration with the lack of US consultation over its pullout from Afghanistan and the AUKUS submarine deal with Australia, which excluded the French. More immediately, Macron seems to resent the fact that the US Deputy Secretary of State first met with her Russian counterpart to discuss Ukraine without European allies at the table in Geneva on January 9–10, 2022.
“We have to take into account that the world has evolved after Trump,” said a Democratic Party member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. “I am a bit worried that the United States has not learned a lot after Afghanistan. If there was a focus to work together as partners, you wouldn’t have talks like those in Geneva, you would have more consultation with allies.”
Strengthening European sovereignty is important and not against the interests of the United States for Europe to become a more reliable partner.
“Strengthening European sovereignty is important and not against the interests of the United States for Europe to become a more reliable partner,” said a supportive Green Party Bundestag member.
But some young leaders see Macron’s initiative as a manifestation of Europe’s limitations, not its strengths.
The direct US-Russian talks, admitted an En Marche member of the French National Assembly, “epitomize our own weakness, our defense weakness, and our cohesiveness weakness. It shows that Europe is a nonexistent foreign policy actor.”
“I see the European positions as very weak,” agreed a People’s Party member of the Spanish Congress of Deputies. “We have said that we are all together and frankly this is not the case at the European Union level. Italian CEOs had a meeting with Putin and [Italian Prime Minister] Draghi could not stop them. France has an upcoming presidential election. Boris Johnson has all these issues with parties. Spain, which plays that we are one and will host the NATO summit in June, has a government that has members who are anti-war, so there is no unity in the government. It’s not just Europe that can’t speak with one voice, it’s the Spanish government.”
“It’s useful to have the Normandy format and I have strong support for Macron’s initiative,” said a Green Party member of the Bundestag, “but I don’t think it will solve the Ukraine crisis.”
“A stronger European voice is not the problem of the United States, but of Europe,” observed a different Bundestag Green Party parliamentarian, voicing a more nuanced view. “I think we should not have a special European way to deal with the Ukraine issue, but a Western way. And what I would strongly support is: we need a strong European voice in the Western group and that includes a European foreign policy.”
In the long run, the Ukraine crisis may spur consensus toward a common European foreign policy. But the immediate challenge will be to ensure that the current, separate European and US dialogues with Russia are closely coordinated, with comparable—not disparate—messages to ensure that Putin does not lead such discussions down different pathways, splitting the West.
“It could be a danger if we let Putin play us against each other,” observed a worried Green Party member of the Bundestag. “But if we stay in close contact, he cannot do that.”
There are other challenges that could also threaten allied solidarity.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, long a Putin ally, recently met with the Russian President and has said that sanctions against Russia would be “doomed to failure” and that Moscow’s security demands with regard to NATO and Ukraine are reasonable. Even young Polish parliamentarians, who may share some of Orbán’s social and nationalistic views, are wary of his dalliance with Putin.
Also, Brussels is demanding that Poland pay €69 million ($78 million) in fines, by the end of February, for failure to comply with EU rules. “In the case of Ukraine,” said a Law and Justice Party member of the Sejm, “I hope there will be a rethinking in Brussels about the fines.” A continued standoff between Warsaw and Brussels would, at best, be awkward as Europe wrestles with the EU’s shared economic consequences if Russian sanctions are imposed.
Moreover, not all of Europe is likely to participate in penalizing Russia. Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, is not part of existing sanctions against Russia. And neither it nor Serbia is likely to want to join in any future penalties. “Given the historical connection to Russia,” said a Social Democratic member of the Serbian parliament, “neither public opinion nor politicians would support sanctions.”
And, particularly in Poland, the legacy of history fuels public distrust of other nations determining their fate. “We had this experience in Munich in 1939,” said a member of the Polish Modern Party. “I worry about the EU and the United States backing down and giving Putin something.”
In the event of Russian action against Ukraine, the West’s reaction is likely to be swift, united, and taken by older, not next-generation, political leaders. Most young national parliamentarians are likely to support such efforts. But they and their young constituents hold a world view shaped in a different era, when great power confrontations were inconceivable. Now they are wrestling with adapting their outlook to a reality that is new to them, if not to their elders. And, since these parliamentarians are the European leaders of tomorrow, the lessons they learn or don’t learn from the Ukraine crisis will shape future European and transatlantic foreign and security policy for years to come.
Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
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