The sweeping sanctions and rapid decision making the EU has achieved since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago has confounded critics accustomed to a glacial pace of progress in a bloc where conflicting national interests often hobble its ambitions.
But as EU leaders prepare to meet in Versailles for a summit aimed at capitalising on the momentum, cracks are appearing over the prospects for deeper integration across multiple fronts — including funding the union’s economic response to the Ukraine crisis and shaping a common defence policy.
A draft EU declaration ahead of the summit on Thursday, seen by the Financial Times, vows to “take more responsibility for our security and take further decisive steps towards building our European sovereignty, reducing our dependencies and designing a new growth and investment model for 2030”.
“This is the ‘whatever it takes’ moment for Europe,” Roberta Metsola, president of the European parliament, told the FT. The goal must be to address the “fundamental gaps” in the EU that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has exploited, she added.
A main plank of that initiative is to achieve a rapid reduction in the EU’s reliance on Russian energy.
The European Commission on Tuesday outlined a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year, including by importing more liquefied natural gas, boosting renewable energy generation and cutting demand via efficiency measures. Leaders at Thursday’s summit will vow to “phase out” the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal, according to the draft declaration.
In recent days, however, member states have diverged over how realistic that goal is, 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.
Differences are also emerging over the best way to pay for the energy ambitions and the EU’s wider strategic objectives.
EU officials have examined the idea of extra EU borrowing to boost energy infrastructure spending or help respond to the economic crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine — on top of the EU’s existing €800bn post-Covid recovery fund.
But Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president at the commission, said on Tuesday that Brussels had no plans to issue new joint debt to pay for energy investment. Meanwhile, the idea of embarking on extra EU borrowing so soon after the initial recovery fund has begun paying out is viewed with deep scepticism in northern Europe.
Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch finance minister, told the FT at 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, let’s find out how bad the damage is and . . . under which conditions assistance or compensation could be provided.”
Some officials from Brussels and member states argue the bloc’s focus should instead be on ensuring member states take up funding that is already available — including using the full loan allocations available to EU capitals under the pandemic recovery programme.
“Our priority must be to urgently help Ukraine defend its statehood and preserve its economic basis . . . not look for extra funds from the EU,” said one EU diplomat. “For some time, EU member states will still benefit massively from the [Covid-19] recovery fund. Those extra billions should help them weather the current situation.”
EU capitals also differ on the prospect of Ukraine joining the bloc, after Kyiv filed its application last week, followed by Moldova and Georgia. While many central and eastern European nations are in favour of Ukraine becoming a candidate, other countries including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are wary of stoking unrealistic expectations of a rapid track to membership.
When it comes to a common defence policy, the EU faces further divisions over how far to pursue its own priorities and the best way of integrating its efforts with those of Nato.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has signalled that he will use the Versailles summit as an opportunity to advance his long-cherished plans to bolster the EU’s status as a global power. On Monday he warned: “We cannot depend on others to defend ourselves, whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyber space.”
The Ukraine crisis has already prompted individual member states to take steps on defence policy that were previously unimaginable — notably Germany, which has overturned decades of aversion to military engagement to announce it will beef up spending and support more joint European projects. The EU, which has never before funded the arming of a country at war, decided last month to allocate €450mn for weapons supplies to Ukraine.
But despite pledges for more collaborative defence spending and co-ordination to streamline weapons production, which will be reiterated at Thursday’s summit, the longstanding resistance that has previously derailed these efforts remains.
Individual EU states currently produce multiple types of tank and rifle and incompatible electronic warfare systems because governments want a nationally manufactured supply of weapons and arms factories account for large numbers of jobs. Few member states are willing to lose those advantages and rely on Paris, Rome or Berlin to build their weapons.
If anything, the crisis has exposed once again the EU’s heavy reliance on the US as an essential military partner, say some experts.
“We’ve seen the almost total dependence of Europe on the US not just for troops but also for intelligence and general leadership in Nato,” said Sophia Besch, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
“That’s a dependence that becomes more perilous as the US elections near. The EU is not going to be able to secure its own defence in the next two years.”