EU struggles to deepen unity on defense and energy

The sweeping sanctions and swift decision-making the EU has achieved since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago has baffled critics accustomed to a glacial pace of progress in a bloc where clashing national interests often hamper his ambitions.

But as EU leaders prepare to meet in Versailles for a summit aimed at building on the momentum, cracks are emerging over prospects for deeper integration on several fronts, including funding the response. economy of the Union to the Ukrainian crisis and the development of a common defense policy.

A draft EU statement ahead of Thursday’s summit, seen by the Financial Times, pledges to “take greater responsibility for our security and take decisive new steps to strengthen our European sovereignty, reduce our dependencies and design a new growth and investment model for 2030”. ”.

“Now is the time ‘whatever it takes’ for Europe,” Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, told the FT. The aim must be to close the “fundamental shortcomings” of the EU that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has exploited, she added.

One of the main elements of this initiative is to achieve a rapid reduction in the EU’s dependence on Russian energy.

The European Commission on Tuesday presented a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year, including by importing more liquefied natural gas, boosting renewable energy production and reducing demand through efficiency measures. Leaders at Thursday’s summit will pledge to “phase out” the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal, according to the draft statement.

In recent days, however, member states have differed on the realism of this goal, with Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, warning on Monday that it could not be achieved “overnight” as he refused to back a blockade on oil imports from Russia.

Divergences are also emerging on how best to finance the EU’s energy ambitions and wider strategic objectives.

EU officials have discussed the idea of ​​additional EU borrowing to increase energy infrastructure spending or help respond to the economic crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine – in addition to the post-war recovery fund. Existing covid of 800 billion euros of the EU.

But Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the commission, said on Tuesday that Brussels was not considering issuing new common debt to pay for energy investments. Meanwhile, the idea of ​​embarking on additional EU borrowing so soon after the start of the initial stimulus fund disbursement is being viewed with deep skepticism in northern Europe.

EU leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, left, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, center, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, meet in Paris after the Russian invasion of Ukraine © Dario Pignatelli/European Council/dpa

Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch finance minister, told the FT over the weekend that there was an “understandable reflex” to want to borrow more. But she added: “Our very sober position would be, let’s take stock, find out how bad the damage is and. . . under what conditions assistance or compensation could be provided.

Some Brussels and member state officials say the bloc’s focus should instead be on ensuring member states take the funds already available – including using the full loan allocations available to EU capitals. EU under the Pandemic Recovery Program.

“Our priority must be to urgently help Ukraine defend its statehood and preserve its economic base. . . not seek additional funds from the EU,” an EU diplomat said. “For some time, EU Member States will still benefit massively from the [Covid-19] recovery fund. These additional billions should help them overcome the current situation.

EU capitals are also divided over the prospect of Ukraine joining the bloc, after Kyiv filed its candidacy last week, followed by Moldova and Georgia. While many Central and Eastern European countries are supportive of Ukraine’s candidacy, others, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, are wary of unrealistic expectations of a fast track to membership.

When it comes to a common defense policy, the EU faces new divisions over how far to pursue its own priorities and how best to integrate its efforts with those of NATO.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has indicated that he will use the Versailles summit as an opportunity to advance his long-standing plans to boost the EU’s status as a global power. On Monday, he warned: “We cannot depend on others to defend us, whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyberspace.”

The Ukraine crisis has already prompted member states to take defense policy steps that were previously unimaginable – including Germany, which reversed decades of aversion to military engagement to announce it will increase spending and support more joint European projects. The EU, which had never financed the armament of a country at war, decided last month to allocate 450 million euros to the supply of arms to Ukraine.

But despite promises of more collaborative defense spending and coordination to streamline weapons production, which will be reiterated at Thursday’s summit, the longstanding resistance that previously derailed those efforts remains.

EU states currently produce several types of tanks and guns and incompatible electronic warfare systems because governments want a supply of domestically manufactured weapons and arms factories account for a large number of jobs. Few Member States are ready to lose these advantages and rely on Paris, Rome or Berlin to build their weapons.

On the contrary, the crisis has once again revealed the EU’s heavy dependence on the United States as a key military partner, according to some experts.

“We have seen Europe’s almost total dependence on the United States, not only for troops, but also for NATO’s intelligence and general direction,” said senior researcher Sophia Besch. at the Center for European Reform.

“It’s an addiction that becomes more perilous as the US election approaches. The EU will not be able to defend itself for the next two years.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels

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