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A fresh-faced teenager, wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest, crouches in the rubble. Volleys of sniper fire cut through the air. Men scream instructions to one another, keep their heads down, and hope. It might be the trench of a battlefield, but this is Institutskaya Street, in central Kyiv, on February 20th 2014. It is day 92 of the Maidan, the Ukrainian people’s revolution of dignity, and the boy has just pulled a lifeless body away from the line of fire. ‘You can’t surprise me with anything,’ he says. ‘You thought it would be easy, just go to Maidan, hang out a little and then go back? Not me. I always wanted to be on the front lines.’

The opening seconds of Winter on Fire, Evgeny Afineevsky’s raw and unflinching documentary, remind us of the extraordinary human sacrifice that lifted the Maidan and carried it forward, and how the story of sacrifice continues to unfold today. Between November 2013 and February 2014, more than a million mothers, fathers, and their children, from all classes and all regions of the country, Ukrainian and Russian speakers alike, marched to the Maidan together. They protested corruption, demanded dignity, and claimed a European future that would secure their country’s freedom. ‘They came to the Maidan and they stayed,’ wrote Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, in The Road to Unfreedom. ‘And in so doing they took part in the creation of a new thing: a nation.’

In the space of three months, the Ukrainian people ousted a kleptocratic president, Viktor Yanukovych, making him flea to his sponsors in Moscow; they won the dissolution of the Berkut, the brutal special forces that protected a corrupt regime; and they secured fresh elections that produced a new government and an Association Agreement with the European Union. By the end of the revolution, 125 Ukrainians had lost their lives, more than 60 were still missing, and almost 2,000 had been treated for injury. They had opened up a new path for their country, and for the European Union too.

The success of the revolution terrified Vladimir Putin. Within days of Yanukovych’s flight and the announcement of new elections, Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine that continues to this day – a criminal act of unprovoked aggression, which fatally exposes his own myth of the siege, his perennial complaint that it is Russia who is encircled by hostile powers, its very existence threatened by NATO expansion. The myth denies agency to all the nations who secured independence when the Soviet Union expired, and who have since chosen their own path towards democracy (and not joined NATO). For Putin, Ukraine’s choice to join the European Union was, and always will be, intolerable.

Tragically, the European Union failed to grasp the significance of the Maidan, even as its success was changing the shape of Europe, irrevocably, before everyone’s eyes. Worse, many leaders in Europe’s capitals held on to a world that had long since disappeared – where dialogue might work, Russia might be contained, and the gas would still flow. As evidence mounted, year after year, that Putin had not only contempt for international law but a strategy to subvert it, Europe’s exporters and their backers, starting in Berlin, simply carried on. Nord Stream 2, the Gazprom pipeline that surfaces on the German coast, was completed in 2021, seven long years after the Maidan and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Maidan, then, is not history. Or rather, the history of the Maidan, as Snyder warns, ‘is not the same thing as the history of the failed attempts to put it down. Bloodshed had been unthinkable for protesters within Ukraine; only bloodshed made Americans and Europeans notice the country; bloodshed served Moscow as an argument to send the Russian army to bring much more. And so, the temptation is strong to recall Ukraine as it was seen from the outside, the arc of narrative following the arc of bullets.’

The true and enduring history of the Maidan was, and remains, how a people came together in the street, in the name of decency and dignity; how they organised themselves as citizens to reject a regime as brutal as it was corrupt; how they fought to replace it with a new politics and the vital foundation of any human democracy: the rule of law. Nine years later, Ukraine’s struggle for survival, its tireless resistance to Russian aggression, confirms the choice that its people made on the Maidan.

What does all this mean for the European Union, and what might it learn, not so much from its own denials and hesitations of the last decade, but from the actions of a people who have carried the European flag and risked their lives to defend it?

Europe’s centre of gravity has certainly shifted east. The countries who suffered Soviet domination lead the charge for Ukraine’s accession to the Union; they see their neighbour’s struggle as existential and were first in line to provide military support to Kyiv. The Union’s traditional centres of power and their ability to define strategy and decide budgets are anchored further west, but who would deny that – for now at least – the fate of the Union lies on its eastern border?

Leading thinkers argue that the Union is now reminded of its original, essential vocation: to secure peace among its members but also, where possible, beyond. Better late than never, but it had surely been a strategic error to downplay the peace project; to argue that younger generations took peace for granted was both a failure of Europe’s sense of history and a sign of growing complacency – the combination that led to delusion and denial over Putin’s war on the West. Still, Europe has always grown stronger through crisis, many would argue, and the invasion of Ukraine is the latest episode, albeit of a greater magnitude. Seen from this angle, Europe has a new chance to show the strength in numbers and the capacity for action which served it well during the pandemic.

These debates tend, however, to see Ukraine only from the outside. Often, they place the country and its struggle within existing narratives. What does Ukraine tell us about ourselves? The risk here is that Europe, too, perhaps inadvertently, denies agency to Ukraine and its people. We might miss the deeper truths, starting with those that emerged from the Maidan; the truths that were already changing Europe – from the inside. The question we should ask is this: what does it mean when a people chooses the Union? What is under way?

Every member state sees its own reflection in the European Union – its own understanding of the past, its own vision of the future. Each government’s decision to join, and each debate that preceded accession, expressed a set of national demands and aspirations. Some saw Europe as redemption and the chance to begin again (Germany); some saw an extension of their own power, a platform from which to shape the world (France); others saw a path towards modernisation (Ireland) or the guarantee of a newly recovered democracy (Greece, Portugal, Spain); others saw a market and a pragmatic expansion of commercial opportunity (Denmark, Sweden, United Kingdom); countries of central Europe saw liberation from a previous oppressor (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia). In every case, the path to membership was mediated by national political parties and the governments in power.

Ukraine and its revolution, and the war which defends its achievements, creates something new – an opportunity for the Union to root itself in a deeper legitimacy. For the first time in its history, a people took to the street to claim a European future; they carried the 12-star flag next to their own and risked their life to defend it. Their choice to join the Union was deeply entwined with their own country’s sense of destiny, its own transition towards the rule of law and democracy, its own rejection of everything that Putin’s Russia stands for. In short, the Ukrainian people were answering a new question: what does Europe say about us, and what do we say about Europe?

None of this denies the underlying national problems that provoked the Maidan: oligarchy, kleptocracy, and a corruption that had stifled the economy, dimmed prospects, and made people poorer. On the contrary: people saw the Union as a crucial part of the solution, a powerful tool that would help them win the internal struggles. The central point is this: the choice to join Europe came directly from the people; it came from the street.

If the families on the Maidan were asking themselves the questions – what does Europe say about us, and why do we want to join? – can we not then imagine that the story of modern Ukraine is also the story of our evolving Europe? Can we not see that, just like its western neighbours, Ukraine is a work in progress? A society that negotiates multiple identities, speaking across frontiers both internal and external; a heartland of history and shared culture but also a borderland of conflict, where Europe discovers where she begins and ends? Can we not see that Ukraine and the Union must answer their questions together?

These questions arrive at a moment of flux. Having survived a decade of crisis, the Union must now reconcile old tensions: it yearns for autonomy even as it pursues its historic mission of openness; its leaders seek stability through rules while the world brings only disruption; its instinct to protect its own rubs against a duty to help its neighbours. If Ukraine is fighting to survive, the Union is searching for new moral purpose.

When it comes to Ukraine’s accession, we are far from the old image of a country waiting in line. In this new world, nothing is static. Both the candidate and the community it wishes to join are in movement, both undergoing profound change. And some of the most important changes – the Union’s independence of Russian gas, the acceleration of its military capacity – come as the direct result of the candidate’s struggle. This is not a conversation of equals but one that will shape both sides profoundly. And for anyone who believes that the Union, at its core, is a democratic experiment in the sharing of power, this conversation can only bring good.

Ukrainian society has no illusion about the work that lies ahead. Its leaders understand that to join the Union is to learn the culture of its laws and institutions; to take on the responsibility of membership. The country knows that this takes time. It knows too that the obstacles on the path – not least the failings in its own institutions that allowed corruption to take hold – demand serious attention. Will a society that sacrifices its children in battle allow a greedy few to steal the future it has chosen? Is it not more likely that the population, civil society, veterans, and political reformers deliver a decisive break with the past?

The Union and its national governments already support Ukraine on the battlefield. They should now show some of the vision, courage, and stamina that we have seen across Ukraine since February 2022. They could start by imagining new ways to support the country’s accession without cutting corners: annual targets for reform that unlock new funding and observer seats at the institutions; full participation in EU science and education programmes so that dialogue and invention go hand in hand; gradual steps towards free movement so that every citizen behind every border sees the benefits. Our times demand creativity.

The reconstruction of Ukraine – from its schools and hospitals to its power plants and energy grids, from its roads and railways to its houses and museums – will be the life work of a generation. Ukraine and the Union must come together around a new Marshall Plan and a mission of renewal: to build an economy that stands on new foundations, under new principles. Funding will be ready. The UN General Assembly has already decided that Russia should compensate Ukraine for the losses, human and material, caused by its aggression. The 1946 Paris Agreement on German reparations shows what is possible. And by seizing Russian assets around Europe and North America, western governments have already taken the first steps.

None of this reduces the size of the task ahead. None of it shortens the thousands of pages of European law that Ukraine will need to absorb. But the manner in which Ukraine has claimed its European future calls on all sides to pause – and appreciate the historic significance of what is happening. Today, we witness not only the revival of Europe’s founding mission – peace among its peoples – but also its need for redemption. What is the Union if not an ongoing exercise in self-renewal, a chance to deal with our national traumas, learn the lessons together, and move on? We begin again, with new energy, on firmer ground.

Ukraine has renewed Europe’s promise of freedom. Its people have told us what is at stake – a way of life that we came to take for granted. The Union owes not a debt but a commitment to work together and imagine what it means to be European in the twenty-first century. And to do this from a position of strength: sure of our values, confident about our place in the world, and clear in our vision of a civilised democracy.

Author: Jonathan Hill, CEF Co-Founder

Date of publication: June 5, 2023