Should the EU have acted more resolutely in the Crimean Crisis? European Debate in Leiden

The Leiden Debating Union hosted a public debate about the question: “Should the EU have acted more resolutely to counter the Crimean Crisis?” in cooperation with IDEA NL and Bürger Europas in the KOG on December 10.  

LDU member Daan Welling and Thijs Kievit from the leftist political youth party Jonge Socialisten argued in favour of the motion. The opposition consisted of Anne-Marie Venrooij, Europe specialist of right-wing political youth party JOVD, and Lennart van Laake (LDU member and lecturer European Law at the University of Leiden. Peter Croonenbruck from Bürger Europas introduced the Europe-wide project, after which the speakers kicked off their debate.

Kievit argued that the EU had been created to contribute to a stable and peaceful Europe. This means the EU should have responded more resolutely to a potential threat like this. Venrooij countered that Ukraine is not an EU member and therefore the EU has no such duty. In addition, the EU is divided over the conflict and potential responses, while current sanctions are sufficient.

Welling responded by saying the violations of rights in Crimea are cause to intervene, no matter what our legal obligations are. The position of the Tatar minority is under threat while around 2000 companies have been disowned. It is in the EU’s interest to stop Russia’s policy of chipping away smaller territories from its neighbours, first Abkhazia and South Ossetia, now Crimea. Current sanctions do not work, so the EU should consider supporting Ukraine’s army.  

Van Laake argued that only NATO could potentially have responded more strongly, if it were necessary. The EU would hurt its own image, it is too divided and its citizens do not support such actions, while NATO has more freedom to act. Stronger sanctions would not make a difference and could even strengthen Putin’s position as he could blame the West for them.

A lively discussion ensued. An audience member argued that Crimea has wanted to be part of Russia since a 1994 referendum which Ukraine ignored. Putin should therefore be seen to mostly protect the interest of Russian people and the EU should allow him to do so. The proponents argued that that referendum was a sham and should not be considered representative of the will of the Crimean people.

The discussion then moved to whether stronger sanctions might help end the crisis or escalate it. Welling believes the other regions, like Donbas, are strategically less interesting and only serve to destabilise Ukraine and prevent it from joining the EU. Venrooij believes that it might, because, as an audience member pointed out, Russia has seen too many broken promises from the West and used Crimea as a sign of where they draw the line.

The proposition and opposition speakers all had one final chance to argue their case, before the audience was asked for a vote. Kievit restated that Russia had gone too far and needed to be stopped. Welling believed the EU to be essential for any stronger sanctions. Venrooij believed the EU had done enough, while Van Laake believed further actions would harm the EU. The majority of the audience voted for the opposition, but an equal number of people changed opinions compared to the beginning of the debate. That was the end of the public debate, but it continued much longer afterwards over drinks in closeby Einstein.

Pictures of the debate are now available online. The European Debates are a follow-up to the project Klartext Europa that started a series of public debates between university students and politicians on European political themes across German-speaking countries in 2013. IDEA NL is the partner for the Netherlands, and coordinates between Bürger Europas and Dutch student debating societies. The other Dutch debates took place in Rotterdam in May and in Amsterdam in November.

The European debates allow politicians to not only debate in front of a student audience, but to debate together with talented student speakers and engage with questions from the audience in a style inspired by the Oxford  Chamber debates. Find out more about the format on the project’s Facebook page and the website of the Verband der Debattierclubs an Hochschulen (VDCH). The project is made possible with funding from the European Parliament, the Allianz Cultural Foundation and the German Federal Press and Information Office.