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The question of European unity

European diplomats and experts break down the case for the European Union, and whether unity is truly a part of the continent’s future. Morgan M Davis sums up the debate at a club lunch last November.

The question of European unity, and the power of the European Union (EU), has been greatly debated following Britain’s precipitous exit in 2020. Now the purpose of the EU and its ability to maintain stability in Europe is again in question, as Ukraine fights for its existence.

“The EU is not a state… it is in-between,” says Stefan Auer, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong. “That in-betweenness has worked very well for decades. [But] in times of crisis, the EU has not worked well.”

Auer argues that the EU is not fit for purpose because no one knows what its purpose is, something that leads to cataclysmic results when lives are on the line, such as they are in Ukraine.

But others countered that the EU can offer compromise in the face of conflict.

“Of course the EU is not a nation state. There is no problem with that,” says Stefan Bredohl, deputy consul general for Germany’s Federal Foreign Office in Hong Kong.

“As I grew up and I followed political debates… I knew that all of this was difficult,” says Bredohl. But “we always have to figure out and make a compromise”.

Despite political conflicts, agreements have been reached, says Thomas Gnocchi, head of the EU office to Hong Kong and Macau. Gnocchi believes there has been a high degree of unity in the response to the Ukraine situation. “If there wasn’t unity or a sense of purpose, I don’t think we could have mobilised,” he says, referencing the EU’s support for Ukraine thus far.

Likewise, the EU’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, its first major health crisis, shows its adaptability. “This should be underlined when it comes to talking about if countries achieve more when they come together,” says Gnocchi.

But the EU is often criticised for its cumbersome bureaucracy, which drags out difficult decisions, and highlights the schisms that have long rankled Europeans.

“From where I stand, the EU has not delivered on its many promises, and that is a liability for democracy in Europe,” says Auer. What works well for the EU in times of peace hinders it when conflicts arise.

“The idea that you can accomplish peace through conversation is what led to the disaster that Ukrainians now suffer,” says Auer.

Part of the EU’s value is its ability to hand more power to small or medium-sized states that otherwise could fall by the wayside in international discussion. “We do not play a big part in international relations on a global scale, but as part of the EU we can and do play this role,” says Aleksander Dańda, consul general for the Republic of Poland in Hong Kong and Macau.

Dańda points out that the EU is strongly supported in Poland, citing a study from February 2022 that found 82 percent of Poles were in favour. He has faith in the EU’s ability to come together despite clear differences among member states.

Still, Dańda cautions that the EU must not patronise countries such as his, as there is no true union without central Europe or a voice for smaller nations. Polish resentment toward the EU could easily build “if we only have to sit and listen but are not listened to”, says Dańda.

For the time being, Ukraine and the EU’s approach to dealing with Russian aggression has outweighed most other concerns in the region. But other underlying problems are simmering, with the related energy crisis topping the list. How the EU responds to these problems, and whether it can hold its member states together, is still up for debate.

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