The European Union’s 27 leaders are in Versailles today for a summit that could prove to be historic. They are expected to sign the “Versailles Declaration,” intended to formalize the far-reaching but ad hoc policy changes the EU has implemented in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is now entering its third week. The measures under discussion would strengthen the union’s existing military, economic and border control capabilities, while also giving the bloc new powers in those areas that will push it further down the path toward federalism.
The symbolism of the decision to sign the declaration at the Palace of Versailles—where the Versailles Treaty, another pivotal document that proved central to the remaking of Europe after World War I, was signed in 1919—is not lost on anyone. In 1919, Europe’s leaders got it very wrong. Will they get it right this time? It’s very hard to say, since nobody knows what the world that emerges after the war in Ukraine will look like.
At the top of the agenda for the EU leaders’ discussion at the summit will be the military aspects of the war, which took on new urgency overnight, with the Russian Ministry of Defense having admitted to using thermobaric weapons in Ukraine and the U.S. warning that Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons as part of a false flag attack as well. The bloc’s leaders will formalize last week’s historic decision to finance the purchase and delivery of $500 million worth of weapons to Ukraine, the first time in the bloc’s history that it will send arms to a conflict zone. They will also likely agree to increase funding for the European Peace Facility, which will be used to pay for the new weapons delivery program, although Germany remains skeptical, arguing that there remains a considerable amount of unspent money in the fund.
EU leaders are also expected to give full backing to the concept of a European Defense Union, a pet project of French President Emmanuel Macron, who remains the bloc’s most outspoken advocate for European “strategic autonomy”—which has traditionally meant weaning Europe off of the United Stats’ security guarantee, but has now come to include freeing it from energy dependence on Russia as well. Perhaps most significantly, several leaders from Eastern European member states will push for the declaration to provide more clarity about Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s vaguely worded mutual defense clause. Paris appears to be on board with that proposal, but the big question is whether the EU’s non-NATO, neutral member states—Ireland, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Malta and Cyprus—would sign a declaration that includes a more ironclad guarantee that EU member states will go to war in the event of an attack on another bloc member. Finland, Sweden and Austria have already indicated a shift in their thinking here—Ireland, not so much. If language shoring up the mutual defense clause is included in the declaration, Ireland and perhaps other neutral countries may demand a specific derogation in a side note.
This is, without a doubt, Macron’s moment in the sun. Though today’s Versailles summit was planned months ago as part of France’s rotating chairmanship of the EU Council, he now appears to be vindicated on the ideas he has long advocated for in terms of EU defense and other policy areas. Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, normally a firm Atlanticist and previously a skeptic of Macron’s strategic autonomy proposals, admitted yesterday that “we have to enhance our strategic autonomy, something France has been urging for a long time.”
Greater pan-European energy and economic integration is also on the table at today’s gathering, another consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The leaders will discuss a strategy adopted by the European Commission on Tuesday that could reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy imports by two-thirds within a year. The commission stopped short of giving a firm date by which the EU should be completely free of Russian oil and gas, leaving that decision to EU leaders, who will decide in their Versailles meeting whether to set such a date as well as whether to endorse all the commission’s suggestions on energy.
Macron may also push for further mutualization of EU debt, following the historic decision already taken by the bloc in 2020 to fund a pandemic recovery fund with joint debt. Macron and other EU leaders are suggesting a new fund to cushion the blow from the backlash and fallout effects of economic sanctions the union has slapped on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. But some others, such as Rutte, say the coronavirus recovery fund has barely been used and prefer for the EU to repurpose that fund to manage the economic effects of the Ukraine war.
By the end of the summit tomorrow, two documents are expected to be signed: the Versailles Declaration charting a long-term change of course for the European Union and a statement outlining short-term next steps for the war in Ukraine.
Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s best efforts, there is unlikely to be major progress on Ukraine’s request for fast-track accession to the European Union. A large majority of EU leaders are opposed to granting Ukraine candidate status at this time, and many are even skeptical about the notion of Ukraine as an EU member state at all, arguing that it is too far east and too large. If Ukraine were granted EU membership, it would become the fourth-largest member state by population, and the largest by physical area. Many inside the bloc believe that its presence in the union would shift the EU’s center of gravity toward the “illiberal east.” The notion of fast-tracking Ukraine’s accession candidacy for purely geopolitical reasons without a realistic prospect of a successful outcome, as was done with Turkey, would be “making promises we can’t keep,” as an Elysee official put it.
In Other News
ECB braces Europeans for economic woes from the Ukraine war’s effects. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank’s senior officials met in Frankfurt today to coordinate Europe’s response to surging inflation, rising energy prices and an expected economic shock as a result of Russia’s swift disconnection from the global economy and the disruptions it is causing. In a surprise move, the bank quickened its wind-down of monetary stimulus, calling this a “watershed” moment for Europe. The ECB now sees inflation in the eurozone increasing to 5.1 percent this year, up from the previous prediction of 3.2 percent. The ECB will also slow bond-buying in May and June, and may halt an asset-purchase program in the third quarter. ECB President Christine LaGarde will discuss the economic situation with EU leaders tomorrow in Versailles. There are concerns that the global economy, which had only recently started to recover from the pandemic, may be headed toward a 1970s-style global recession.
Europe’s energy shock causes a change in strategy. The European Commission revealed some good news in its energy strategy released Tuesday, assessing that the EU can withstand a sudden loss of Russian oil and gas imports this winter using existing reserves as well as new liquefied natural gas sources from friendly countries. But if that optimistic outlook is sufficient in the near term, next winter might be another story, and EU countries need to urgently come up with solutions by October. The strategy focused largely on how to shield consumers from the worst effects of the energy price increase and calls for suspending or making more flexible many EU rules limiting state aid so that countries can freeze prices, but also tax energy companies’ windfall profits and redistribute them to citizens. The strategy also gives tacit endorsement to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s proposal for EU joint gas purchases. Sanchez will be bringing the strategy to today’s summit as ammunition for his expected showdown with leaders of more market-oriented countries like the Netherlands, who have previously expressed their opposition to the idea.
Refugees are welcome—from Ukraine. Earlier this week, EU interior ministers officially activated a temporary protection mechanism that will allow all Ukrainian citizens and permanent residents of Ukraine fleeing the war there to live and work in the EU for three years, albeit without the right to claim asylum. The EU had already set up a scheme allowing refugees from the war to enter the EU without a visa. This newly activated mechanism, which was established two decades ago after the Yugoslav wars but has never been used, will not apply to non-Ukrainians who were temporarily living in the country before the war broke out, such as foreign students. However, temporary residents fleeing the war in Ukraine are still able to enter the EU in the short term, where they can either apply for asylum or return to their home countries.
EU leaders in Versailles will discuss how to share the burden of hosting the refugees proportionally among the bloc’s countries. The EU has so far taken in 2 million refugees in just two weeks, with the majority of them located in Poland. For context, a total of 700,000 refugees from the Balkans fled to the EU over the entire decade of the 1990s, when the Yugoslav wars were fought, and 1 million refugees came to the bloc in all of 2016 as a result of the Syrian Civil War. The U.K. is still refusing to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter unless they have immediate family members residing in the country. Under that visa scheme, the U.K. has approved only 300 Ukrainian refugees for entry. U.K. Home Affairs Minister Priti Patel is under intense pressure to end what France’s interior minister called an “inhumane” British policy.
Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.