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Is it time for some gesture politics ?

Putin’s hideous war is a war on freedom.

Just because it sounds simplistic doesn’t make it any less true.

It is a war to stop a sovereign nation choosing its own destiny as part of Europe and the West, a war to end Ukraine’s right to join NATO and the European Union.

Even if Putin’s history was less questionable it wouldn’t matter a jot. The past is present in the future, but it doesn’t – should not - define it. The Russian dictator’s claims that Ukraine is an essential part of Russia is disputed by those who see it as a colonial victim of Empire.

Interesting stuff for a seminar.

But what matters right now is the freedom to choose their own future.

It is something autocrats like Putin perhaps cannot understand, but certainly cannot allow.

This conflict has its roots in the 2013 Maidan protests when Ukrainians revolted against their pro-Russian President’s decision not to sign an agreement setting a path to joining the EU and instead opted for closer ties with Russia.

At the end of last month Ukraine’s President Zelensky asked for a special fast track to be opened so his country, already a ‘priority partner’, can quickly join the

European Union in this time of crisis.

Unfortunately for him, it takes not two to tango but 27 other sovereign dance partners, all moving to different music in their heads.

This week’s Versailles summit leaders reached for the high-flown rhetoric. . There were fine sounding words from President Macron:

‘Europe must change. In terms of defence, energy, agriculture, health, technology, we Europeans must take historic decisions for our sovereignty, for our future. This is the purpose of this summit in Versailles. Let's rise up, let's be united.”

Tellingly, he later set the limits to the extent of that change and that rise :

"Can we open a membership procedure with a country at war? I don't think so. Can we shut the door and say: 'never'? It would be unfair. Can we forget about the balance points in that region? Let's be cautious."

Cautious, indeed.

Of course, the EU is far from united, which is both a weakness and a saving grace. There are multiple splits, North and South, East and West, big and small, rich and poor. One of the least acknowledged divisions, however, is between romantics and pragmatists.

The EU is not often seen as an organisation steeped in romance, so let me explain.

Deep within and existing alongside its bureaucratic soul there is a fierce aspiration to soar on wings of glory to something more like the founder’s intention of ever closer, ever more perfect union, a destiny called Europe. This restless, impatient spirit can be disdainful of practical restraints clipping its wings and binding it to earth. This has led to some of the greatest advances, and some of the greatest mistakes, sometimes at the same time.

A minor one – allowing Greek entry in 1981. As the ‘birthplace of democracy’ its post dictatorship welcome into the project was more important than the petty fogging details of its economic readiness. Or the big one. The creation of the Euro, a single currency for a single continent a huge symbol, with a hurriedly constructed architectures which still creaks and threatens to totter. The rights and wrongs are for another day, but the point is European union is created by imaginative leaps, both bold and foolhardy.

Could fast tracking Ukraine’s entry, as the most special of special cases be another such example ? In a word ‘no’. Or not so far.

When you’ve covered as many EU summits as I have you know it’s not the fact of a fudge that’s important, but its flavour. Does it leave a bitter taste in all mouths, or give everyone something to chew on ? In this case the latter. The official statement says

”We will not leave them alone-- Ukraine belongs to our European family.”

Splendid. But the Presidents and Prime Ministers

merely “acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine’ and “invited the Commission to submit its opinion on this application”. Passing the buck, they pat themselves on the back for having ‘acted swiftly’ and adding ‘without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path’.

Not many parsnips buttered there. But it is better than this message for two other worried border states which want to join in short order :

“The Council has invited the Commission to submit its opinions on the applications of the Republic of Moldova and Georgia”

The eight Eastern EU countries, anxious and sympathetic, got something they could brandish aloft to claim a special solidarity with Ukraine.

The President of Lithuania tweeted this as ‘historic’.

But sober souls like the Dutch, Spanish, French and Germans have tugged hard on the reins. Already in a permanent state of alarm about backsliding by illiberal Eastern members they pointed out the last report suggested Ukraine was nowhere near meeting the long list of requirements, not least in the fight against corruption.

But perhaps they shouldn’t be so prissy. Look at the reality.

Putin’s war grinds on slowly, doing huge damage to his economy. He has revitalised NATO, the EU and boosted Western resolve. And yet he has already achieved what must be one war aim. He has smashed up a showcase on his doorstep for Western democracy – literally left smouldering and broken a nation which threated to become a demonstration of an alternative to his kleptocracy. What a people, by his own contention very close to Russia, very like Russian, could achieve without dictatorship holding them back.

This is no longer the case.

Let practical hard truths inform the EU’s deliberations.

Even if the war stopped tonight, Ukraine would be in no fit state to join the European Union in any practical way for years to come. Terrible to consider, but it may soon be obliterated as an independent nation. Is there then not a case for a dramatic, in your face, demonstration of solidarity from the European Union? – some bold promise of speed and determination, temporary associate membership perhaps, as a rebuke and an affront to Putin. Maybe with some new substance, whether ministers attending summits, a voice at the Commission, or any one of a hundred better ideas. The actual form doesn’t really matter.

Maybe, for once, it is a time for gesture politics.

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