Two thousand years ago, the words civis romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen) were like a charm for warding off evil, such was the protection that the empire bestowed on all its citizens no matter where they might travel. In the 19th century Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, invoked Roman precedent to promise that any British subject “shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong”.
Today, more than a week after 210 EU citizens perished in an attack on a civilian airliner, European diplomats are due to debate sweeping economic sanctions against Russia, which supports the Ukrainian separatists who are widely believed to have been responsible for the attack and probably supplied the weapons. Roman precedent should again be at the forefront of diplomats’ minds.
In the days that followed the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the Ukrainian rebels failed to protect the site, allowed the victims’ possessions to be looted, and threatened observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “In defiance of all the rules of proper investigation, people have evidently been picking through the personal and recognisable belongings of the victims,” said Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. “This is appalling.”
Consider the situation if the same number of American citizens had been killed. Images of the site being desecrated would have placed the White House under immense pressure. Serious consideration would have been given to retaliatory air strikes against separatist positions in Ukraine. The Ukrainian armed forces would probably have received lethal military assistance.
At a minimum, the separatists would have been given an ultimatum to hand over control of the site to US or Nato forces for the duration of the investigation. Crushing sanctions would have been passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The authorities would have insisted that those responsible be handed over; and if that failed, the US would have pursued them to the ends of the earth.
One can debate the accuracy of this counterfactual. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the US would have responded with righteous anger from Florida to Alaska. The Dutch, who suffered an unbearable loss, are certainly outraged – as are the British, who had 10 among the dead. But elsewhere, people were detached. There was no visceral cry of pain in Rome, Paris or Madrid; no sense that there, too, people had been attacked. Outside the Netherlands, no one marched in solidarity with the 210 fellow EU citizens who died. In Brussels, the flags stayed hoisted to full mast.
In the debate over sanctions that followed, President François Hollande said France should not be expected to repay the €1.1bn it received for the first Mistral warship it had sold to Russia. It would undoubtedly be different if the 210 were French – but that is precisely the point.
The revanchism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia might have been expected to bring European nations together. So far, it has sent them running for cover. Governments have tried to protect their economic interests by maintaining their own countries’ ties to Russia, instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with their allies. In private, officials openly question whether western European nations would make good on their commitment, under Article 5 of the north Atlantic Treaty, to defend the Baltic states if Russia were to launch an operation there of the kind that led to its annexation of Crimea earlier this year.
This is a dangerous time for Europe to signal that it is unable, and even unwilling, to defend its own. Further Russian aggression could be in store – not to mention the lesson that other actors may possibly draw.
Today’s discussion in Brussels is an opportunity to change course. If tougher sanctions are agreed, as many now expect, it will be a start. However, EU leaders must explain to voters why the attack on a civilian air route is an attack on all of Europe. They must resolve to bring those responsible to justice – including the separatist leaders, if their troops are found responsible. And since sanctions may not be enough to deter Mr Putin, they must also do more to help the Ukrainian government to prevent him from achieving his territorial goals.
Europe should appoint a high representative for foreign policy with the heft and understanding to meet the challenge posed by a revanchist Russia. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, would make an excellent candidate. So would Radek Sikorski, his Polish counterpart, or Toomas Ilves, the Estonian president.
The EU confronts an existential question. Is there a price to be paid for killing 210 of its citizens? Will the words Ich bin ein Europäer resonate in foreign lands as civis romanus sum did in a previous age? Or is it every nation for itself? Today the EU begins to give its answer. It must be full-throated.
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