The Crisis of Stability and the Idea of Europe Today

Gerard Delanty |

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent war that followed, the idea of Europe is once again in question argued Gerard Delanty in his speech at the 15th Ecumenical Social Week organized in Lviv.


Demonstration against Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in Ljubljana, Slovenia held in February 2022. Credit: European Commission Audiovisual Centre. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent war that followed, the idea of Europe is once again in question. The formation and identity of Europe throughout history has been very much bound up with the aftermath of war and the attempt to establish peace. Since 1945, there is general agreement that if Europe stands for anything it is peace. It is now widely accepted that the identity of Europe is not based on an underlying substance that guarantees unity in face of its diversity and there is nothing particularly unique or singular about its culture. Its identity is necessarily contested and a product of whatever meaning Europeans have given it. One such meaning is the normative value of peace. But what does that mean? What does it mean to invoke the notion of peace as the core value of European integration.

It is certainly the case that the period since 1945 has been one of extraordinary peace in Europe as a whole. The project of European integration from its early beginning in the 1950s to the present European Union can be seen as built on the belief in the necessity to establish lasting peace in Europe. This was an elite driven project that was the product of visionary leaders who sought to create the conditions for lasting peace between Germany and France, countries that had been at war with each other three times since 1870. There can be no doubt, too, that the relative success of this desire for peace was connected to the advancement of democracy and prosperity. Now, while I do not think that this needs to be called into question, the notion of Europe as a peace project needs to be re-assessed. This is because the presuppositions upon which it was built no longer exist.

It could be argued that the current situation in which the largest country in Europe has been invaded by an expansionist superpower is an exception, much like the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I believe this is the wrong approach to take. It would be to exclude too much, as well as European failure to intervene to stop the genocide in Srebrenica in 1992 and its later inadequate response to the Kosovo war in 1999. The narrative that has become a legitimating myth of European integration of progressive peace needs to be re-written to take into account not just the current situation but the structural conditions of the very possibility of peace, which after 1945 were very much based on economic and political cooperation.

Looking back over the past 70 years or so, we can see that the relative peace that was established in Europe was made possible by a framework of economic and political stability that no longer exists, having come to a slow demise over the past two decades. In many ways the fundamental aspirations of the post-war project of European integration have been realised. The current geopolitical crisis is a crisis of stability. So, hence the title of my talk.

The post-1945 period was indeed a period of peace, but it was more so a period of stability. We should not mistake stability for peace. The conditions of the post-war peace was made possible by a new kind of war, namely the Cold War and the possession of nuclear weapons by the two superpowers. The peace that was established was a phoney peace, as argued by many critics such as E.P. Thompson and Herbert Marcuse, who also pointed out that the peace the Cold War established made possible the struggle to control the ‘Third World’, where the real war took place. In this period, when the USA and the USSR scrambled to control the Third World, many of the European nations were actively conducting wars to retain their colonial possessions, and several of them were dictatorships in this period. The Treaty of Rome was signed in the middle of the Algerian War. It makes little sense calling Spain under the Franco dictatorship peaceful. The absence of war was often tyranny and terror. Peace must also be just.

Peace in Europe was secured at the price of major restrictions on democracy, leading to a pervasive crisis in legitimation in the 1970s. This peace was possible only through the balance of capitalism and democracy, a balance that has now broken down amidst the crisis of neoliberalism and the rise almost everywhere of radical right-wing nationalism. I think this situation can be seen as a crisis of stability, which now also extends to a questioning of the EU itself, as reflected in the monumental catastrophe of Brexit. But the current instability goes beyond these movements to encompass the ecological crisis and let us not forget the Covid pandemic. The Ukraine war is entwined in an energy and food crisis.

For these reasons, I think we need to rethink the idea of Europe as a peace project, not to reject this idea but to give it a different foundation. The reconciliation achieved between France and Germany and between Poland and Germany was one of the great achievements of the previous century, as was the project of European integration. But as the memory of the war recedes and the improbability of a war again between the founding nations of the EU, a new rationale has to be found. We cannot assume the existence of an endogenous permanence of a ‘peaceful Europe’.

Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace in 1795 argued that peace needs to be perpetual, that is eternal. Treaties between states secure a kind of peace that is conditional on a treaty. What needs to be created, he argued, it a perpetual peace that does not depend on the highly conditional nature of treaties. Creating a lasting peace requires a fundamental transformation in political community. Now, some of the answers Kant found are not very helpful for us today (he regarded democracy as despotic) but his argument for what he called the right of hospitality and a new cosmopolitan law that goes beyond international treaties continues to be relevant.

In many ways the war in Ukraine challenges the viability of cosmopolitanism. Russia is in the grips of a pathological ultranationalism that has been a rallying call for white supremacist nationalism in the USA; Europe has failed to solve some of its most pressing problems, which have also been exacerbated by the revival of xenophobic nationalism. But, as I see it, cosmopolitanism is not a zero-sum condition, either present or absent; it is not just an ideal and nor is it a reality that is negated by anti-cosmopolitanism; it is rather a condition that is to varying degrees present and has been a product of a learning process in Europe since 1945 when a pacific orientation did take place coupled with democratization. This learning process is incomplete, but it did begin, despite the limitations imposed on it by the structural conditions that I mentioned. In Russia, too, under Gorbachev it had a brief moment but was abated and, sadly, probably failed entirely. But there is much evidence that elsewhere such a learning process has taken place, as for example the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998; the dissolution of armed struggle by secessionist nationalist movements, such as ETA; the peaceful resolution of the Cyprus conflict etc.

While I believe that peace in Ukraine will triumph in the end, it is not guaranteed. It needs to be defended. This is also why the political situation in Ukraine is important to understand for Europe as a whole. War and tyranny have been a major part of European history, but so too have been resistance to tyranny and war. The uprising in Kyiv in November 2013, the so-called ‘EuroMaiden Uprising’ against the suppression of the Association Agreement with the EU, must be placed in the wider context of the uprising in 1989/90 in central and eastern Europe and other ones, for example the protests in European cities against the disastrous war in Iraq in February 2003. Some of these protests did not succeed: in 2014 Russia invaded and seized the Crimea; the war in Iraq went ahead despite massive opposition by European publics. But the lesson of history is that resistance to tyranny in the end delivers results even if those results are not available to those who fought for them. The uprisings that led to the end of Soviet dominance in central and eastern Europe did succeed in at least some of their aims and, so far, Ukrainian resilience against a formidable enemy is showing startling results.

An unfortunate paradox of peace is that it sometimes needs military action to defend it. That is the predicament that we have today. NATO has acquired a new relevance, but in my view, it has a role to play only if, first, it is entirely a defensive organization (and I think was well demonstrated in its successful intervention in the Kosovo War). There is no appetite today for a war against Russia. Second, Europe must assert its own identity rather than being subservient to the USA. The widespread support that has been expressed for Ukraine in Europe is at least one expression of a new kind of European identity that is nurtured by the awareness of the interconnected nature of the European nations. This accords with an important characteristic of cosmopolitanism, namely empathy with those who suffer.

I have argued in various publications that Europe today is ‘post-western’, in the sense that it is no longer defined by the context of the Cold War when it was largely shaped by the western core states allied to the USA. Since 1989, Europe has been redefined in a way that encompasses the wider diversity of civilizations that have constituted its history. This, what I have referred to as an ‘inter-civilizational constellation’ includes the relation to Russia, as it does the Byzantine, Jewish, Muslim heritages. The term captures the sense of multiple and entangling civilizations, as opposed to a singular and now discredited notion of ‘Western Civilization’ and its modern successor ‘The West’. Inspired by T.W. Adorno’s use of the term, the concept of a constellation suggests a pattern that is not underpinned by a fixed or objective structure.

With the widening of the civilizational diversity of Europe since the end of the Cold War and the widening the EU, there is inevitably less certainty as to the unity of Europe. The absence of certainty should not in itself be a source of insecurity and the consequent fear that uncertainty nurtures. But, when combined with a crisis of stability the conditions are created for a sense of insecurity that is easily expressed in hostility and not, as Kant said, hospitality.


I would like to express my thanks to the conference organizers for their kind invitation to speak at this conference and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for organizing my trip to Lviv.


This post is a transcript from Gerard Delanty’s speech at the 15th Ecumenical Social Week Conference: “Wandering Identity: Considering meanings and Values” organized in Lviv. It has been previously published by the Ecumenical Social Week website.