KIEV — Since World War II ended, France has consistently risen to the challenge of restructuring Europe in times of crisis. In doing so, France became the catalyst not only for building European unity, but also for creating the prosperity that marked Europe’s postwar decades — a prosperity now under threat because of the global financial and economic crisis. If we are to see a stronger Europe emerge from today’s challenges, visionary French leadership is needed again.

The first moment when decisive French leadership began to unify Europe came when Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer created the European Coal and Steel Community. By rooting then West Germany in the political, economic and social fabric of the West, that step heralded the start of Germany’s rebirth and economic miracle.

The second time that France consolidated Europe’s internal architecture came in 1983, during the debates over the stationing of American cruise and Pershing missiles in Germany to counter the deployment of SS20 missiles by the Soviet Union. France’s resolve to stand with Germany helped prevent Germany from drifting into a dangerous neutrality that would have shaken the European community to its core.

The third moment came after the Berlin Wall fell, and it was feared that an enlarged Germany might destabilize Europe. After initially trying to delay reunification, France embraced it, in exchange for Germany’s reaffirming its commitment to European unity and Franco-German leadership of the European community.

As a result, Germany bound itself to the idea of “ever closer union” even more definitively by pledging to join the common European currency, the euro.

It is now urgent that the insights that have animated Franco-German relations be applied to all of central and eastern Europe. Only by securing the European identity of this entire region, and by anchoring the growing Russo-German relationship in a European context, can the European Union continue on its path of stability and prosperity. Only by reinforcing open trading and financial relations across Europe can we hope to subdue today’s crisis. For it is in no European country’s interest, or in the interest of the EU as a whole, that central and eastern Europe feel that they have been cast adrift or that Germany and Russia are fixated on each other.

As with Germany in the 1950s, the nature of Russia’s links with its immediate neighbors is turning out to be the defining factor in shaping the country’s international image. Many observers regard these relations as a signal not just to the region, but to the rest of the world, of the sort of power that Russia wishes to be.

The issue is partly one of “internationalism” itself. In contrast to Europe — with its close-knit network of multilateral organizations through which states formulate and conduct much of their foreign policies — Russia is not accustomed to intensively cooperative international procedures.

But keeping Russia at arm’s length from Europe has only strengthened the sense of isolation that many Russians feel, tempting them to define the country’s interests in ways that are irreconcilable with those of Europe. It has also heightened Russia’s desire to construct a special, bilateral Russo-German relationship heedless of the context of the EU.

European history during the past 60 years makes clear that the most promising approach to meeting the challenge of national reconciliation and stability is not to focus on specific contingencies, but to establish procedures that encourage orderly change. A singular vision has always animated this process: Animosity between neighbors must not be allowed to fester, and the rule of law must reign not just within countries, but between them.

To believe that such a vision can work for Russia, Ukraine and Europe is not wishful thinking, but rests on the successful experience of France and Germany in promoting amity. Indeed, the existence or absence of a framework of cooperation often determines whether a dispute mutates into a crisis. Such cooperative frameworks seek to reconcile national independence with regional interdependence, focusing political leaders’ minds on prosperity for their people rather than on gaining unilateral advantages that ultimately impoverish and unsettle everyone.

The first lesson of European unity is that a crisis must draw the continent closer together, not divide it through protectionism, competitive devaluations and expulsions of immigrants.

Similarly, the euro must not be allowed to become an Iron Curtain that consigns nonmembers to a high-risk zone where investors dare not venture.

For Ukraine, Europe can help by embracing the free-trade agreement that we are now negotiating. Coupled with our successful membership in the World Trade Organization, Ukraine would stand to benefit when world and European trade begins to recover. Europe can also consider using various stabilization funds to help our economy through the crisis that we are all enduring.

I do not ask for these things out of a narrow concern for my country’s health. Just as the U.S. Federal Reserve has engaged in credit and currency swaps with Brazil, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea and other countries to ease their access to the dollars they need, the European Central Bank must offer such swap arrangements to Europe’s noneuro countries in order for trade and production processes to continue.

Yes, these are dark times, and all politicians want to protect their voters. But Europe’s greatest postwar leaders understood that keeping the wider view of Europe in mind is the best way to achieve this goal. As at so many times before, now — with all of our economies in peril — is a moment for decisive French leadership.

Yuliya Tymoshenko is prime minister of Ukraine.© 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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