European Union leaders have laid bare their differences over whether to stop buying oil and gas from Russia, following a show of transatlantic unity at a series of summits with Joe Biden and an impassioned call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to more military aid to defend their homeland.
In the third summit of a hectic day of diplomacy that began with an emergency meeting of NATO leaders, followed by the G7, EU leaders met with the US president to discuss the Russia war against Ukraine.
“The most important thing we had to do in the West was to be united,” Biden said upon arriving at the EU summit, the first time an American president has attended a European Council meeting. Biden said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been trying to break up NATO “from the beginning” and that unity would be crucial in stopping him. “The most important thing is to stop this guy, who in our country we believe has already committed war crimes,” he said.
EU leaders were due to listen to a video address by Zelenskiy, four weeks after the outbreak of the war, when he told them in a conference call that they might never see him alive again.
The European Council meeting was loaded with symbolism, but officials dampened talk of new sanctions. Poland and the Baltic states were leading the charge for tougher measures against Russia, including a ban on Russian ships and road vehicles entering the EU. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the EU needed to “crush” Russia with sanctions over the war, which he said had turned into a “massacre.” Referring to the Soviet Union, he said that Russia was trying to “reestablish the ‘evil empire’.”
Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš said energy sanctions were a “serious option” that the EU should consider, starting with oil and coal.
“Energy sanctions are an immediate way to stop the flow of money into Putin’s coffers,” he said. “Every day that we delay in sanctioning Russia’s economy, Russia maintains the ability to fuel its military machine.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the West was ready to impose more sanctions on Russia, which he said were having an impact.
However, Germany, which gets 55% of its gasoline imports from Russia, warned that an immediate ban would cause unemployment and prevent drivers from filling up their cars. To stop using Russian energy “from one day to the next would mean sinking our country and all of Europe into a recession,” Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday.
He was supported by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who said an oil embargo “would have a devastating effect on the European economy and I don’t think it’s necessary.”
After four rounds of far-reaching EU sanctions in three weeks, targeting Putin, his inner circle and much of the Russian economy, there are growing tensions among EU leaders over next steps.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel argued that more sanctions should be “a reaction to something,” referring to chemical and biological weapons, amid alarm grows that Putin will resort to them. “If we take sanctions now, more sanctions, with the situation still being the status quo, what will be the next step?”
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, one of a trio of EU leaders who recently visited kyivHe said that Putin had already crossed red lines with the destruction of Mariupol. “All the red lines have already been crossed, so we don’t need to talk about chemical and biological weapons, and wait for those weapons to be used.”
Russia accounts for around 45% of EU gas imports, 25% of oil imports and 45% of coal, but some countries are much more dependent. The European Commission has said Europe could be completely free of Russian fossil fuels “well before 2030” and cut its gas consumption by two-thirds within a year.
EU leaders have so far avoided setting a deadline for phasing out Russian fossil fuels. However, they are prepared to agree to the joint voluntary purchase of gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen, in an attempt to harness collective purchasing power “to cushion prices”, according to a preliminary statement from the summit.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the US was supplying the EU with additional LNG to replace Russian gas arriving via tankers, a move she described as “an important step forward”. She is expected to make the announcement with Biden on Friday. The United States is already the largest supplier of LNG to the EU.
The EU and US will also discuss how to deter China from lending its support to Putin, either by handing over weapons or helping Russia evade Western sanctions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said China could be crucial in the peace process: “They have a lot of influence and we are all waiting for them to use it.”
Boris Johnson was not invited to attend the EU summit. EU officials said there were never any plans to invite the British prime minister and insisted this was unrelated to his widely condemned comments comparing the war in Ukraine until the Brexit vote. Von der Leyen tweeted from NATO headquarters that he had a “good meeting” with Johnson, where they discussed cooperation between the EU and the UK on sanctions.