EU leaders are meeting at the Palace of Versailles, France, to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and plans to strengthen the bloc’s energy independence and defence capabilities.
The two-day meeting kicked is hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country currently holds the EU Council’s rotating presidency.
Macron said the war "completely redefines the architecture of our Europe" and will make the continent "change even faster and stronger."
"Our democracy is threatened, our values are threatened and we must accept that sometimes we have to pay the price," Macron told reporters in Versailles, adding he will sook speak again with President Vladimir Putin.
"I am not going to spare any effort to try to achieve this ceasefire," the president said, adding: "I am worried, pessimistic and this is also why I believe that our Europe must be there."
"Europe must prepare itself for all scenarios," he went on. "Europe must prepare itself to be independent of Russian gas, to be independent to ensure its own defence"
Ever since Macron arrived at the Élysée, he has been the most prominent and vocal defender of strategic autonomy, a theoretical concept that posits the EU should become more self-reliant and assertive on the world stage.
Russia’s aggression and the resulting set of hard-hitting sanctions that the EU, in coordination with allies, has slapped on the Kremlin have created a new momentum around calls for strategic autonomy, which Macron is set to further amplify.
"I think we took Russia by surprise because we were firm, we were strong, we were united," said European Council President Charles Michel ahead of the meeting.
"It is not enough. We need to identify together what could be the following steps in order to have a positive influence and to [achieve] as soon as possible a ceasefire."
The Versailles gathering follows a series of transformative events for the EU.
For the first time in its history, the bloc will finance the purchase of lethal weapons for countries that are under attack, with an initial €500 million package for Ukraine.
Germany, Sweden and Finland have also dropped long-standing policies regarding military aid. Denmark will hold a referendum in June to decide whether to keep the opt-out clause that has so far removed the country from the EU common defence policy – the only member state currently excluded.
Leaders will build upon these developments to discuss ways to boost defence expenditures, promote innovative technologies and deepen cooperation between member states.
The 27 will also take stock of the situation inside Ukraine, the humanitarian crisis and Kyiv's application to join the EU via a fast-tracked procedure, an unheard-of option. The European Commission is currently examining the request and is expected to issue an opinion in the coming days.
"Let there be no doubt about the fact that the Netherlands and Ukraine stand shoulder to shoulder. But there is not such as a thing as a fast tracking of accession. It does not exist," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
In addition to this, leaders will touch upon the bloc’s last-minute push to slash energy imports from Moscow and break free from its long-standing dependency.
To this day, Russia remains the main EU supplier of crude oil, gas and solid fossil fuels, a sector that brings more than 40% of the country's revenues. Western countries are increasingly concerned that the enormous amount of money they send Russia to import energy is indirectly financing the war in Ukraine.
In the US, President Joe Biden has already imposed a total ban on Russian imports. In the UK, the government unveiled plans to phase out all Russian oil products by 2023.
The EU is not unified enough to introduce a similar ban, given the various degrees of energy dependence that some member states present. However, political willpower is intensifying to speed up the move away from Russian energy.
"I am convinced that we should make a decision to stop energy imports from Russia to get Putin to the negotiating table to stop the war," said Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš.
Earlier this week, the Commission unveiled an ambitious roadmap to cut Russian gas by two thirds (around 100 billion cubic metres) before the end of year, most of which will be replaced by liquefied natural gas (LNG) from other providers, such as the US, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Algeria.
Biomethane, clean hydrogen, energy efficiency and renewable energy should also contribute to the rapid switch, Brussels noted. The plans offered new measures to deal with soaring electricity bills, like regulated price caps and redistribution of windfall profits.
"We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us," said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The executive’s goal is to make the bloc "independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030."
Even if Brussels can provide guidance and facilitate joint procurement, the plans will depend on member states and their capacity to swiftly change energy suppliers and sustain the burden higher prices in the near term.
The transition is already bearing fruit. According to figures released by Bruegel, an economic think tank, Russia's share of EU gas imports fell from 47% in January 2021 to 28% in January 2022, amid tensions along the Ukraine border.
On Friday, the debate will turn to economic matters, like investment, supply chains and innovation. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde will join leaders for the discussion.
Even if the meeting is informal and no official conclusions will be taken, the stage gives the occasion an air of solemnity and grandeur. The Palace of Versailles, located outside Paris, saw the signature of the 1919 peace treaty that put an end to the war between Germany and the Allied Powers.