The last time I covered the State of the Union conference in Florence was a year ago with the global fight against COVID-19 taking centre stage — this time it was a completely different call.
Back then I sat down with Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama to discuss the enlargement of the EU and his country’s bid for EU membership but now, war has come back to Europe and the EU faces the worst crisis since World War II.
Not only that: For the first time since the beginning of the war in Ukraine the unifying effects of the conflict have been wearing off. The event kicked off just after EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled a proposal for a phased oil embargo on Russia which sparked divisions among member states.
The speakers that flocked to the Italian city late last week had been booked to answer one crucial question: “Is Europe fit for the next generation?". The implementation of the EU’s recovery package to help citizens hit by the pandemic, rule of law concerns and the climate crisis were some of the talking points covered by the conference.
Yet as I arrived at Badia Fiesolana just outside Florence - for the first day of talks it was very clear that discussions around energy would top the agenda.
Vincenzo Amendola, Italy’s undersecretary for European Affairs told me what the EU needs is to proceed with revisions to the Treaties, reiterating what his prime minister, Mario Draghi, had told the EU Parliament plenary in Strasbourg a few days earlier. But most importantly Amendola stressed that Italy’s path to halt dependency on Russian energy sources is a one-way road, ie, there will be no turning back.
A vision that despite differences, many people in Florence shared, including Spain’s Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera Rodríguez.
I met with her at the end of one of the most interesting panels of the day titled “Achieving Europe’s great energy challenge” also featuring Kadri Simson, the EU’s Energy Commissioner — an issue that went hand in hand with another session entitled “Will the Ukraine crisis weaken Europe’s climate and energy policy?”
I put the same question straight to Belgium’s deputy Prime Minister, Petra De Sutter, who was invited to the panel. She told me that it’s rather the contrary and that moving away from Russian gas will accelerate the EU’s transition to green energy sources. In other words: “Behind every challenge there is an opportunity for growth”, a concept that pretty much sums up the essence of the summit.
On the second day of the event with Brussels’ big players taking the floor – it became more evident what “seizing the opportunity” mean for Europe today and what’s at stake.
As the focus shifted to security and to changes in the world order, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, clarified the idea by highlighting the fact that this is a historical turning point for Europe with the EU behaving as a geopolitical actor on both the military and the energy front.
It goes without saying that unity among member states is a precondition for making the current crisis an opportunity for the 27-country bloc. Yet how is it possible to preserve the unity of the EU as the bloc implements sanctions against Russia? That’s the question I decided to ask Roberta Metsola, the President of the EU parliament.
Her answer was straightforward and left no room for doubt, making it clear that the EU cannot afford being divided: “If unity fails”, she told me, “political leadership fails too”.
But I guess it’s Metsola’s words as she addressed the opening speech earlier in the day that best portray where Europe is at these days. Taking inspiration from Draghi’s famous statement made at the height of the financial crisis when he helmed the European Central Bank - she said that Europe faces another “whatever-it-takes moment. A point in time”, she added, “which should lead to change”.