By SAMUEL PETREQUIN – Associated Press
VERSAILLES, France (AP) – When French President Emmanuel Macron chose the lavish Palace of Versailles for this week’s summit of European Union leaders, he did not anticipate the cruelty of the Ukraine war.
With the coronavirus pandemic abating, the two-day meeting starting Thursday should have been devoted to optimistic discussions about the EU’s new economic growth and investment model.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade his neighbor has turned everything upside down.
As European nations unite in supporting Ukraine’s resistance with unprecedented economic sanctions, three main issues now dominate the agenda: Ukraine’s bid for accelerated EU membership; how to wean the bloc from its Russian energy dependency; and strengthening the region’s defense capabilities.
The EU has shown remarkable cohesion since the war began last month. She quickly enacted massive sanctions against Putin himself, the Russian financial system, and its high-maintenance oligarchs. It also took the unprecedented step of collectively supplying arms to an attacked country.
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The EU agreed to spend 450 million euros ($500 million) to buy arms for Ukraine. Meanwhile, Germany said it would increase defense spending to over 2% of GDP – and broke a long tradition of refusing to export arms to conflict zones when it agreed to send anti-tank and air-defense missiles to Ukraine.
“In strengthening European defence, we need to find a consensus within the EU that sometimes the best way to peace is a willingness to use military strength,” said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.
According to a draft of the summit’s conclusions obtained by The Associated Press, leaders at Versailles will agree that they must “resolutely increase (their) investments in defense capabilities and innovative technologies” and continue their efforts to make the EU “stronger and stronger” competent security provider.”
But two weeks after the start of the war, disagreements between the leaders over Ukraine’s integration and the severing of energy ties with Moscow began to surface.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants his country to join the EU quickly, but no agreement on this issue is forthcoming this week, despite further urging from Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“This step would give the Ukrainian people a huge boost of hope. In these dark times, we need that hope more than ever,” Kubela wrote in an opinion piece in the Financial Times. “Leaders of the EU, it is your turn to make history.”
Ukraine’s fast-track bid has garnered widespread support in Eastern European countries, but EU officials have stressed the process could take years, with unanimity among current members required to admit a newcomer to the club.
“This will not happen in the short term as this is a whole process that will take many years,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Wednesday.
Another important deterrent to a hasty decision is the specific EU treaty clause that obliges the other EU countries to help and support it with any means at their disposal if a member falls victim to armed aggression.
“The chance that all member states will agree to Ukraine’s admission while it is at war with Russia is practically nil, as this could trigger a conflict with Moscow,” said Luigi Scazzieri, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform.
On energy, everyone agrees that the EU should reduce its dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal imports while accelerating the green transition. The EU imports 90% of the natural gas used to generate electricity, heat homes and power industry, with Russia supplying almost 40% of EU gas and a quarter of its oil.
Earlier this week, the European Commission proposed diversifying natural gas supplies and accelerating renewable energy development in a bid to cut EU demand for Russian gas by two-thirds before the end of the year.
EU leaders are expected to agree on this, but are highly unlikely to follow Washington’s lead in unanimously backing a full embargo on Russian oil and gas imports. France will not defend this radical measure and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made it clear that he is opposed to the idea.
Boycott efforts are complicated because some EU countries, including Germany and Italy, are much more dependent on Russia than others. Poland gets 67% of its oil from Russia, while Ireland only gets 5%.
Rutte said it was important that the EU “not (jump) too quickly towards a total ban on gas and oil from Russia”.
“Because we’re very dependent, that’s the painful reality,” he said. “(A ban) would have a huge impact on all of our economies… but even as far as Ukraine itself because we still need to find the diesel to fill the trucks going to Ukraine to help them.”
However, even without an EU deal, some countries could decide to go it alone and impose an embargo, as members are free to make their own energy decisions.
Raf Casert in Brussels and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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