By Marine Strauss and Juliette Jabkhiro
VERSAILLES, France/BRUSSELS – European Union leaders will on Thursday discuss weaning the bloc off Russian energy in the face of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but internal divisions and fear of provoking President Vladimir Putin mean they will not invite Kyiv to join their club.
Gathering in France’s opulent Versailles palace, the 27 national EU leaders will also look at shoring up their defences and economies. But they are set to disappoint Ukraine’s dramatic appeal for quick membership as it battles Russian invasion.
“It will take time,” French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune told France Inter radio, adding that Ukraine’s accession to the EU was “not for tomorrow”.
Russia’s Feb. 24 military invasion shattered Europe’s security order that emerged from the ashes of World War Two and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said Europe was facing its Sept. 11 moment, a reference to the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States that triggered a Washington-led invasion of Afghanistan and years of a so-called international “war on terror”.
“We are not taking part but it is on our doorstep,” de Croo told the Le Soir daily, referring to Russia’s assault on Ukraine. “September 11 was a decisive moment in the United States. This war in Ukraine is Europe’s 9/11.”
The EU has slapped sanctions of unprecedented severity on Russia for invading its neighbour, including cutting seven Russian banks from the SWIFT transaction system, targeting Moscow ally Belarus and blacklisting Russian state officials and billionaire oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
“Russia’s war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history,” EU leaders were expected to say in a joint statement, adding the invasion confronted them with “growing instability, strategic competition and security threats”.
The EU still pays hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars every day to Russia, its biggest energy supplier, for more than 40% of its natural gas, more than a quarter of oil imports and almost half of its coal.
While the United States has already cut Russian oil imports, the case for the EU is more complicated, expensive and politically sensitive as it fears further big jumps in energy and food prices.
EU leaders disagree on a deadline for jettisoning Russian energy sources because national dependency differs, with Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria the most exposed.
Russia hawks in the EU including Poland and Lithuania – both once under Soviet domination from Moscow – want to punish Putin harder and say the West should be ready to bear the price of retaliation. But Germany, France and some western EU states want to keep on doing business.
EU nations are just as split on letting Ukraine join their affluent union, with France and the Netherlands leading the reluctant camp against a group of strong supporters including Poland and other eastern EU neighbours of Ukraine.
Both sanctions and enlargement – a process that normally takes years to satisfy strict criteria ranging from economic stability to rooting out corruption to respecting liberal human rights – require unanimity in the EU.
Ukraine is a former Soviet republic that now wants to join the EU and NATO. That is anathema to Moscow where Putin launched what he calls a “special military operation” to derail Ukraine’s drive for deeper integration with Western democracies.
Russian forces have bombarded Ukrainian cities and sent two million refugees fleeing into the EU. Kyiv has appealed for more Western help beyond economic sanctions and some arms supplies.
But, wary of the economic hit as well as being dragged directly into the war, the EU is more likely to offer words of moral support to Ukraine as it looks inwards to get ready for years of worsening confrontation with Russia.