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25 January, 2016

The Pillars of European Scepticism

In countries such as Spain, France or Germany, public perceptions on Ukraine, the Maidan and the war, are a mixture of big-picture frame alongside much confusion

The public generally attributes the core responsibility for the conflict to Russia and Putin. Yet, for certain pundits, diplomats and politicians, the EU and some of its member-states would also be to blame for “provoking” Russia. Oversimplifications on Ukraine abound, though this is the case with other international topics. A chief example is the binary approach that overdoes the cleavage of Western Ukraine (“pro EU”) versus Eastern Ukraine (“pro Russia”). Many people see Ukraine only through the lens of its oligarchs and corrupt leadership. This scepticism partly springs from the Orange Revolution’s discredited politicians and the impression that many new ones are Old Guard too. The volatile nature of Ukraine’s politics compounds the picture.

Though propaganda and misinformation have certainly played a role, the fact is that there is still a poor basis in Western Europe for an objective, nuanced understanding of Ukraine as a country. Foreign policy discussions are, in a way, a reflection of this, and of an equally poor rapprochement between Western and Eastern European societies.

Another thing the crisis has confirmed is the widening gap between the traditional public space where mainstream media operates, and the second dimension of the social media, misinformation and propaganda jungle. Political and social thinking within our global societies and establishments is shaped by both, with the latter developing almost as a parallel public space.

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Mainstream media outlets have generally given a fair and balanced account on key events since the Maidan. In parallel, however, especially in the cyberspace, an ongoing clash of ideas and worldviews within our societies has been evident. These “opinion wars” have often pitted pro-Western and liberal voices, generally defending Ukraine, and anti-Western and sceptics showing understanding for Russia’s actions. The polarized nature of these discussions has sapped any space for nuanced, constructive views.

This battle of ideas, now shifting to Syria, has been a playfield for propaganda and misinformation. But propaganda has merely tapped into simmering dissatisfaction and mistrust within Western societies, in times of crisis of collective ideals and institutions. These discussions have often not really been about Ukraine itself, but rather about the West, Europe and global governance. Some politicians and pundits have used the crisis to hurl geopolitical abuse at the US, Europe and the West, or to dust off old propositions of Russia’s role in European security architecture. Further, the fact that a majority of Ukrainians continually signal a will to be subjects rather than objects of international relations is, sadly, an annoyance to many grand strategists or Russlandverstehers.

At work are also more profound factors that go to the very core of Western societies and political systems. Firstly, we are witnessing the return of polarized politics with its Manichean thinking and resulting worldviews. Hence hollow assumptions that the West has ill goals everywhere, including Ukraine. Secondly, as we enter a new Age of Insecurity, fears of ISIS and generalized instability, many of those in power cling to Realpolitik notions that favour relations with authoritarian leaders over democracy promotion, especially after the Arab Spring. The premise is Putin, Assad or Egypt’s Al Sisi are a lesser evil to chaos and instability. Thirdly, many cosmopolitan Europeans feel uneasy with processes of nation-building, of the kind Ukraine is currently going through. They are no longer used to the idea of patriotism, seen as a slippery slope to the nationalistic bigotry against which post-war Europe was built. Many of these cosmopolitan Europeans approach Ukraine with a lofty, though sometimes narrow emphasis on even-handedness and fairness that prevents them from reckoning that one party might be essentially right and another essentially wrong.

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But above all, Ukraine’s dilemmas overlap with an atrophy of Europe and the West as political narratives and systems, which has gained traction amidst unsettling abuses (Iraq, tortures), struggling institutions (eurozone) and declining leadership. Realistically, Western and European identity, and its basic corollary (solidarity), were always weak tenets, but they have now become more acute. Hence, hollow rhetoric has proved a poor recipe for a predominant moral relativism and nihilism that sees some sectors permanently stressing the West’s own galling contradictions and hypocrisies.

The New Ukraine has a small chance to prove sceptics wrong. In my view, it is but one part of a broader challenge: to revitalize the European narrative, making it again a truly inspiring project for our societies, even in uncertain times. In that process of renewal, instead of just more summits and countering propaganda, we need to invest much more in societal rapprochement as the basis for any purposeful pan-European solidarity.

Francisco de Borja Lasheras is Policy Fellow and Associate Director of ECFR Madrid Office @LasherasBorja

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