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EU leaders meet in Brussels to discuss Ukraine and the economy. But will e-fuels rock the summit?

EU leaders are expected to discuss the Ukraine war, the economy and migration.
EU leaders are expected to discuss the Ukraine war, the economy and migration. Copyright Olivier Matthys/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Olivier Matthys/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge LiboreiroVincenzo Genovese & Alice Tidey
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The summit in Brussels comes mere days after Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow.

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European Union leaders are meeting today in Brussels to kick off a two-day summit where Russia's war in Ukraine, the battered economy, trade and migration are set to top the agenda.

The 27 heads of state and government will give the very final push to a €2-billion package of military aid for Kyiv, which for the first time includes €1 billion for joint procurement of 155 mm artillery shells.

Leaders will discuss the possibility of topping up the assistance with a further €3.5 billion in the coming months, although this will require further negotiations between ambassadors before turning into concrete action.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is Thursday's guest of honour, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will join the room via video to share the latest updates from the war.

Also on the table will be a new industrial strategy that aims for the bloc to have 40% of the key technology it needs to combat climate change, such as solar panels and wind turbines, built within its own borders by 2030.

France, in particular, is keen to add nuclear energy to the list of most-favoured projects recognised under the industrial strategy, a request certain to face fierce resistance from countries like Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg.

Upon arriving in Brussels, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel came out strongly against nuclear energy and said it would be a "sham" to stamp a green label on the sector.

"(Nuclear energy) is not safe, it's not that fast, and it's not cheap, and it's not climate-friendly either. It's not, and I've been saying that for years," Bettel told reporters, citing the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant.

Ahead of the summit, sources at the Élysée Palace sought to clarify France's position.

"What we are asking for, and perhaps we need to clarify our request, is not so much that nuclear energy be considered green. It's that we apply technological neutrality and that this is reflected in the texts," a source at the Élysée Palace said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We also want to put an end to the false debate on, for example, the fact that France and other partners would seek to have nuclear energy recognised as green energy. This is not the objective. That will not happen and that is not what we are looking for."

The meeting in Brussels comes mere days after Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held one-on-one talks in Moscow and committed to prioritise ties.

Speaking to Euronews before the summit, European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc was not "naïve" about the ever-closer links between China and Russia.

But, he noted, the rapprochement should not deter Brussels from engaging with Beijing.

"We need to engage with China, not because we agree on everything with China, on the contrary, but because we need to defend our interests and to defend our principles," Michel told Euronews.

China is not an official item on Thursday's agenda but the Xi-Putin reunion is expected to come up during discussions, particularly amid growing fears that Beijing might supply lethal aid to Moscow.

Although Chinese officials have insisted the fears are unfounded, European leaders have nevertheless warned Beijing against taking such a step, calling it a red line and a cause for sanctions.

"It's important that China supports the international law, the stability through the UN Charter," Michel told Euronews.

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Combustion engine standoff

Another subject that is not part of the agenda but is poised to loom large over the summit is e-fuels.

Earlier this month, Germany took diplomats by surprise when it mounted a last-minute opposition campaign to block the final approval of a proposed regulation that would impose a 100% reduction in CO2 emissions for cars and vans sold after 2035.

The proposed law will target emissions detected at the exhaust pipeline, which means it will effectively ban new sales of diesel and petrol cars after the cut-off date.

Considered one of the key pieces of the European Green Deal, the law has been controversial since its inception but managed to survive negotiations between the EU Council and the European Parliament, which settled on a compromise text that kept the 2035 deadline intact.

MEPs endorsed the draft law last month and passed the buck to member states, who were expected to rubberstamp their text without major fuss.

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But at the very last minute, Germany, which hosts a world-class automotive industry, came out against the law and demanded an exemption for e-fuels, an emerging technology that combines hydrogen and CO2 to produce new fuels that can be poured into conventional combustion engines.

The hold-out shocked officials and diplomats in Brussels, who saw it as a betrayal of the long-standing rules of procedure.

The impasse prompted a rare intervention by European President Roberta Metsola, who this week sent a letter to the EU Council warning the blockage "could undermine the credibility of the legislative process and risk eroding trust between co-legislators."

Despite talks between Berlin and Brussels, which German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described as being "on the right tack," the dispute remains unresolved and threatens to float heavily over the entire two-day summit.

"We can live with the decision that was reached before," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday morning, noting the topic could be discussed on the fringes of the summit.

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"It is now an idea coming out of the European Commission: how to deal with this within the framework of the original agreement. I hope and I think we can get there. Maybe not today and tomorrow but over the coming days."

But even if Germany's demands are satisfied, it is unclear if the deadlock could be overcome, as the number of countries who remain opposed to the 2035 ban continues to grow.

Italy, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic are among those considered most likely to resist the proposed ban, although officials insist the alliance is not clear-cut.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni opened the door for a possible exemption of biofuels, which burn cleaner than gasoline but still release CO2 emissions.

"We agree with the goals of the green transition, but we don't think it's up to the EU to decide which technologies should be used to reach those goals," Meloni said.

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"On some technologies, Italy and Europe are frontrunners: deciding to rely on other technologies, mastered by third countries does not help our competitiveness. We see this as a common-sense position and we hope this could be the line, even on biofuels."

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