EU leaders warned Russia of "massive consequences" if it invades Ukraine, the 27 said in a statement following a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
"The European Council reiterates its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response," the statement read.
"The European Council stresses the urgent need for Russia to de-escalate tensions caused by the military build-up along its border with Ukraine and aggressive rhetoric," it added.
Tensions with Russia have risen to heights not seen since 2014 when Moscow illegally annexed the Crimea peninsula. This time, Western countries fear President Vladimir Putin wants to carry out an all-out military invasion into Ukraine.
Between 95,000 and 100,000 Russian troops are stationed alongside the Ukraine border, according to estimates by US intelligence.
"We face the most dangerous situation in last 30 years," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said ahead of the meeting. "We have to do everything that is in our hands in order to prevent the worst scenario, which we cannot unfortunately exclude."
Leaders did not specify which course of action they will take in case of a military incursion in order to preserve their political leverage against the Kremlin.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the summit: "Let there be no doubt: if Russia moves against Ukraine, the EU will be in a position to take sanctions that could extract a massive cost."
"We have done our work in that respect," she added.
She told reporters last week that the Commission has presented a range of options on Russia to the Council, that they would be communicated to Moscow but that they wouldn't be made public.
NATO also released a statement on Thursday following a meeting between Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warning that "any further aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and would carry a high price."
"We are ready for meaningful dialogue with Russia. We reiterate our long-standing invitation to Russia for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in the near future."
"We are aware of Russia’s recent European security proposals. We are clear that any dialogue with Russia would have to proceed on the basis of reciprocity, address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security, and take place in consultation with NATO’s European Partners," it added.
President Putin has denied any intentions to invade Ukraine and has instead demanded legally binding guarantees that NATO will not expand further east or place its weapons close to Russian territory. These conditions are seen as unacceptable for the West.
"It's up to NATO to decide if, when and how it expands its membership numbers, this can't be dictated from the outside," said Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. "Putin is afraid that democracy will make its march further eastward."
In the event of heightened military action, Kariņš noted, the EU should slap Moscow with "very painful economic sanctions" and put the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on the table. The gas conduit is currently blocked by German regulators.
New faces in the room
The one-day European summit also focused on booster shots, energy prices and migration routes
The debate sees new faces in the European Council's meeting room: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer all made their debut as heads of government of their respective countries.
The gathering in the Belgian capital comes at a fragile moment for the European Union: following a period of optimism marked by decreasing coronavirus cases and accelerating economic growth, the bloc is once again in deep uncertainty as the Omicron variant spreads and new restrictions stunt business activity.
Making matters worse, inflation in the eurozone reached an all-time high in November – a whopping 4.9 per cent – as a result of persistent supply chain disruptions and skyrocketing electricity bills.
Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse, is on the brink of a winter recession that many fear could reverberate across the whole continent.
'Battle against time'
The summit kicked off Thursday morning at 10:00 CET, with introductory remarks by European Parliament President David Sassoli, who's nearing the end of his term. Right after, leaders got into the top-priority issue on the agenda: COVID-19 and vaccination.
The debate centred on Omicron, vaccine hesitancy and booster shots, whose roll-out has accelerated after the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said vaccine protection wanes after the first six months.
"The only answer to Omicron right now is the acceleration of our vaccination programmes, with particular emphasis on boosters shots," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters on Thursday morning. "It's a battle against time."
The sensitive subject of mandatory vaccination was raised by Austria, Germany and Greece and briefly discussed, Euronews understands but was excluded from the final conclusions.
Leaders stressed the importance to coordinate travel restrictions and COVID passports in order to protect the single market and guarantee free movement.
Last month, Portugal shocked Brussels when it invoked the emergency brake of the EU COVID Certificate and imposed a negative PCR test on all arrivals, including fully vaccinated pass holders. Greece and Italy recently followed in Lisbon's steps.
While legal under EU rules, these temporary decisions have dealt a heavy blow to the bloc's travel certificate, a ground-breaking initiative that was meant to facilitate cross-border circulation and encourage tourism during the pandemic.
"If you make no difference between [non-vaccinated] and vaccinated people because they need a PCR test, I think it's a wrong idea," said Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel before the meeting. "It's a national decision but for me it's a common problem and we need common solutions."
His position was echoed by his Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, who called for greater alignment and harmonisation of travel rules and insisted vaccination, and not a negative test, must remain the "key element" of the COVID certificate to motivate more people to get the jab.
The 27 vowed to increase donations of vaccine supplies to low-income countries, both through COVAX and bilateral arrangements. The bloc intends to donate 700 million doses by mid-2022 and has so far distributed over 330 million, according to the European Commission.
Gas prices and border barriers
Following the coronavirus discussion, leaders tackled another source of concern for Europeans: soaring energy bills.
Since mid-summer, the bloc has seen natural gas prices rise at a breathtaking pace due to an international mismatch of supply and demand.
Advanced economies have recovered too suddenly and gas suppliers have been unable to meet their huge needs, leading to a pronounced hike in tariffs. The situation is becoming alarming as winter temperatures drive heating consumption: natural gas hit a record-high price of €128 megawatt per hour at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility, Europe's leading benchmark.
In the last summit, member states agreed to manage the energy crunch through domestic solutions. But this national approach hasn't convinced badly-hit countries like Spain and Italy.
"It's essential the EU takes more action and that it takes it with greater intensity and speed," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told reporters. Sánchez welcomed new plans to enable joint gas procurement (on a voluntary basis) but said this was "not enough" and the bloc should "revise the price-setting structure inside the European energy market."
A group of Central and Northern countries, led by Germany, have already rejected calls for market reforms. The wide gap between the two camps is unlikely to be bridged on Thursday.
Meanwhile, other countries, like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, blamed the soaring bills on the EU's Emissions Trading System, a carbon market that taxes the most polluting industries. ETS fees have doubled this year, hitting more than €80 per ton of emitted carbon.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defended the scheme with a graph that shows natural gas prices have risen at a much higher place than carbon tariffs. But her arguments failed to assuage concerns around the table and the energy debate was delayed until later in the evening.
Notably, the meeting's agenda doesn't foresee any discussion around two topics making international headlines: the boycott of Beijing's Winter Olympics and China's economic coercion against Lithuania.
The Baltic country has denounced China for blocking its exports, saying the move was retaliation for allowing Taiwan – the self-governing island that Beijing considers a wayward province – to open a representative office in Vilnius. Lithuania has removed its diplomatic delegation from the country and warned national companies they might lose contracts with multinationals.
Leaders are also set to debate migration, a topic that has generated plenty of heated discussions in recent years. The Council wants to explore new financial aid for countries of origin in order to contain the departure of migrants and crackdown on human trafficking.
The previous summit saw an attempt from Eastern countries to push for EU-funded barbed wires and walls, an idea that was blocked by larger states and publicly dismissed by President von der Leyen.
However, the controversial proposal gained new traction in November when European Council President Charles Michel appeared to contradict von der Leyen and said that, according to his legal team, funding border barriers under the EU budget would be "legally possible". Michel made his comments during a visit to Warsaw, a capital at the forefront of the campaign.
The European Council concluded with a euro summit to discuss economic matters such as the baking union and economic growth.