Faced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has become aware of its own weaknesses. And there are two that stand out: defensive and energetic. “Substantially increase defense spending.” This phrase, clearly, is read in the first point of the final declaration prepared by the EU leaders at the informal summit held this Thursday and Friday in Versailles, near Paris. The next point of the declaration also leaves no room for doubt: the EU needs to “reduce dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal”. In short, it is about achieving European security by means of arms and energy autonomy, without losing sight of food supply.
“I would rather invest taxpayers’ money in schools or pensions, but we must spend on defense”, summarized the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Anderson, upon arrival at the summit. Military music played in the background, while the French president, Emmanuel Macron, acted as host and received the heads of state and government at the Palace of Versailles. Just over five years ago, a few weeks after being elected President of France, Macron entertained Russian President Vladimir Putin in this historic setting, built by the Sun King, Louis XIV, where the end of the First World War was signed in 1919. Everything has changed since then.
At Versailles, Europe considers an unusual, forced turn, as happens with all European advances due to external crises. Since the end of the Cold War, as explained this week by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, European countries have reduced their defense spending from 4% of gross domestic product to 1.5%. A large part of Europe, protected by the US umbrella, believed itself safe from the tragedies of the 20th century and military spending was not a priority. In the era of globalization, commercial or energy interdependence was the norm and self-sufficiency a concept that seemed obsolete. The crises of the last decade – the financial crisis of 2008 and the pandemic of 2020 – have shaken these certainties. The “Putin war”, as European leaders define the harsh invasion of Ukraine, has finished burying them. Nobody knows what the ultimate intentions of the Russian autocrat are, but Europe has woken up.
Putin attacked Ukraine on February 24 and, a few days later, Germany—an economic power, but reluctant for historical reasons to assert itself as a political and military power—turned its defense policy around. Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz announced that his country would invest 100,000 million in weapons and would raise spending to 2% of GDP. It was the starting gun. Denmark joined this objective, the one that NATO demands from its members. And this Thursday it was the country that Anderson governs, the neutral Sweden.
“Substantially increase defense spending, […] focusing on the identified strategic deficiencies”. “Develop more incentives to stimulate shared investments by member states in projects and joint acquisition of defense capabilities.” “Strengthen and develop our defense industry.” “Foster synergies between civil, defense and space research and innovation, and invest in critical and emerging technologies and innovation for security and defense.” The cascade of sentences in the draft in this sense, with the convoluted language typical of these quotes, clearly shows the direction that the EU intends to take.
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Then each one emphasizes their interests or their traditions. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, one of the great allies of the United States, insists that this reinforcement must be done within the framework of NATO. Macron believes that the war in Ukraine gives reason to his project to promote a Europe of defense together with the Atlantic Alliance, an initiative that he, until now, has met with the reluctance of Germany. The French president has proposed that the new military spending be financed, like the recovery plan after the covid crisis, with common debt, but he acknowledges that it is an initial reflection. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have cooled the initiative.
“We come to work in two directions: one to maintain pressure on Putin and stop the aggression against Ukraine; another, to strengthen the resilience of the EU in energy and defense”, proclaimed Borrell on Thursday at the entrance. In his words, the head of European diplomacy underlines the other fundamental point, since the war scenario in Ukraine forces the European Union to rethink its energy policy. This implies cutting the umbilical cord of many countries in the community club with Russian hydrocarbons: several, mainly the Baltic ones, import 100% of their gas from Russia; Germany, 55%.
In addition, the war has also triggered the price of raw materials, something that, as the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, has recalled, is being transferred to food prices. Hence, the Council is set to “improve food security by reducing dependencies on the import of agricultural products.”
Enhanced cooperation with Ukraine
The other focus of attention at Versailles is the leaders’ response to Ukraine’s request — also Moldova and Georgia — to join the EU. From the time President Volodymyr Zelensky signed his request on February 28 until the first step, asking the Commission to issue an opinion, has been taken, barely days have passed. Normal is months.
At this summit it was the turn of the EU leaders, who have pressed the brakes. “There is a protocol and some treaties”, declared the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, who added that Ukraine does not come out of this meeting with the status of a candidate. This means that the thesis of the Western countries of the European Union and older partners, such as the Netherlands, France or Spain, who defended Ukraine following the usual steps for accession, has prevailed. “There is no quick procedure,” Rutte said. Frenchman Macron expressed himself along the same lines: “Can we open a procedure with a country at war today? I do not believe it. Should we close the door and say never? It would be unfair.” Eastern countries such as Poland and Slovenia demanded to speed up the procedures.
“The Council has acted quickly and has invited the Commission to deliver an opinion on Ukraine’s application. With this in mind and without delay, we will strengthen our ties and deepen our partnership. Ukraine belongs to our European family”, pointed out the draft of the declaration that the leaders discussed at dinner on Thursday. Those words bear a striking resemblance to those pronounced at three in the morning on Friday by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel: “We think that through association with Ukraine we can comfort and we have worked on the idea of seeking a closer relationship For example, by regularly inviting President Zelensky to meetings when we work on concrete things.”
The Twenty-seven are thus inclined to grant Ukraine the status of a “reinforced associated country”, with close ties in trade matters and integration in the energy network, waiting for the conflict to end and negotiations to begin, which, as Rutte explained to the leaving dinner, it can take “months or years”, rather the latter. From this meeting also comes the decision to double the resources that the EU allocates to send weapons and war material to Kiev with another 500 million, that is, double what was announced in principle.
As with energy and defense, the EU map is also being transformed by this war. “The war in Ukraine is an immense trauma,” Macron said, “it is the return of the tragic, a human, political, humanitarian drama and it is, without a doubt, an element that will lead to completely redefining the architecture of our Europe.”