In the meantime, another EU summit has been convened on 24th November to endorse the common ‘technical’ measures needed to implement the sanctions against Russia and to reduce energy dependency. They might be enlarged to other sectors, for instance Russian exports of steel. The obstacle still resides in the difficulty to agree on common rules, witness the succession of meetings at ministerial levels, of summits of the Commission or the European Council; the growing number of bilateral or regional initiatives by EU member states; the occurrence of international travels intended to secure non-Russia energy deliveries and to rally non-Western countries around the sanctions. If not, at least to refrain from cooperation with Moscow, which might help it to circumvent sanctions and to feed president Putin’s claims that Russia is not at all the pariah it was supposed to be.
The fact is that, since the spring, the Europeans have been searching for a common path. The unity about the moral obligation to help Ukrainians is intact, as is the determination to redraw the map of energy deliveries to EU and to diversify them. But when discussions move on pragmatic, technical, implementation, national interests differ – and growingly so as the war continues and energy prices are weighting on individuals and companies just emerging from the Covid crisis. They feed inflation; the small and middle companies, which are considered the backbone of European economy and the basis for social peace, are downsizing or closing doors. Even basic public infrastructures and services have been suspending operations. Mentioning “Ukraine fatigue” is not a taboo anymore.
In consequences, successive meetings have growingly ended with ‘recommendations’ to another circle of power, ‘road maps’ to be approved at other level, and more of the EU-speak hiding dissensions and diverging national interests. Typically, on 12 October, the Czech presidency had organised an informal meeting of the EU energy ministers, in Prague, focused on the gas issue. This initiative was overshadowed by Germany’s surprise announcement it had decided to finance a €200 billion gas price relief package to help its own economy. As a result, the 20-21 October EU summit, that the Prague summit ought to have helped towards proposals to reduce energy prices, decided not to decide. It sent back the hot potato to the energy ministers, who met on 25 October; those ministers sent the dossier back to another EU summit on 24 November, once more expected to adopt the long promised measures to tackle the problem of EU energy supplies.
In other words, EU is still far away from solving the socioeconomic repercussions of energy prices and shortages, and to adopt credible common rules for going through the winter despite the economic recession. Already the president of the Commission took the precaution to say that it is “impossible to expect consensus on all aspects of the energy crisis solution”. The fact is that sanctions were, and still are, the only credible tool the West can use to extract from Russians the full price of the invasion of Ukraine. But the process included a big dose of wishful thinking, upsetting its capacity to pay attention to the full dimension of global markets, to the degree of Russia’s integration in the global economy, and losing sight of the mindset guiding the Kremlin internal and diplomatic moves. Russian businesses and finances have suffered, and were not expecting such frontal hits. But they had 8 years to adjust to earlier Western sanctions, and to take contingency measures. Putin is still in power, and if he is taken down, it ought more likely be by a ‘real patriots’ coup than by liberal crowds. Ukraine will live, for a decade or more, under financial perfusion by international institutions and donors, and in consequence, accepting outside meddling – at least, this time, not from Russia. In the same time, the Ukrainians have suffered up to a point where efforts are geared towards a military victory, not peace agreement. Today, both Moscow and Kiev are, for their own political motives, frightening Europeans with the prospect of millions of new refugees on their doorstep as did president Erdogan years ago. Washington, while generously supporting Ukraine, is now behaving as a great power, keen to find a balance between diplomatic and commercial interests, with China more dangerous than Russia.
At the moment, EU still has no solution to confront the double crisis of volumes and prices, bearing in mind members’ states inequal financial capacities, their different levels of energy dependency from Russia or other producers, their capacities to finance greener sources of energy, their specific geographical and geopolitical situation. The German abrupt decision has raised questions about the possibility to share debts. That leaves the idea of creating a fund to buy energy as a bloc, at lower prices than individual members can do. One speaks of starting with 15% of the EU needs, under mechanisms that might be time consuming under the convoluted EU decision making process, in a global market, in which producers are not philanthropists and know well that fossil energy is there to stay long enough to fill their coffers.