Europe's week: Brussels marks Ukraine independence day and Dutch ask for sanctions exemption

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By Meabh Mc Mahon
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen marches alongside a giant Ukrainian flag during an event for Ukrainian Independence Day in Brussels, Wednesday Aug. 24 2022.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen marches alongside a giant Ukrainian flag during an event for Ukrainian Independence Day in Brussels, Wednesday Aug. 24 2022.   -   Copyright  Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved   -  

Despite the European quarter in Brussels gradually coming back to life after a much-needed summer break, the week was a slow one compared to previous ones.

On people’s minds though were Europe’s worst drought for 500 years, rising inflation, a weakening euro, and a war in Ukraine with no end in sight. 

But the EU institutions did pull out all the stops this Wednesday to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day, which coincidentally fell on the same day as the six-month mark of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

To make it clear whose side she was on, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen joined the Ukrainian community for the occasion in the city centre of the Belgian capital.

A giant flag was unveiled and a day of festivities followed.

The mood was positive as conveyed by von der Leyen during a recorded message about the future of the war-torn country.

"Together with you we will rebuild your cities, brick by brick and replant your gardens and fields seed by seed. Thanks to your sacrifices, your children will grow up in a Ukraine that is just and free," the Commission president said on Wednesday.

But this reality is still far away and what EU capitals are processing right now is that this war will be a long-term affair. 

According to Bruno Lété from the German Marshall Fund, the future for European-Russia relations, for now, is bleak.

"Whether we like it or not, Russia is a geographic neighbour. This is not something you can change," he told Euronews. "And so the question is: what kind of architecture do we need to come up with that can guarantee peace in the coming years? This is the problem right now because Russia and Europe cannot talk to each other.

"Their objectives and views on European security are fundamentally different. So, this fundamental difference between Moscow and European member states, I am afraid, is an ingredient for prolonged tension and insecurity on the European continent."

Dutch sanctions relief

The city of the Hague in the Netherlands said this week that it will apply for a temporary waiver of EU sanctions against Russia to continue receiving gas from Gazprom as it struggles to find an alternative supplier.

In a letter to the city council, alderman Saskia Bruines wrote that a European tender in June and July to secure gas from alternative suppliers has failed to get any bids.

European governments and public bodies are required by the bloc's fifth package of sanctions against Russia over its full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine to end existing contracts with Russian companies by 10 October at the latest.

"Limited exceptions may be granted by the competent authorities where there is no viable alternative," the European Commission said at the time.

This is what the Netherlands' third-biggest city, which has a pre-existing contract with Gazprom, now intends to do.

Bruines wrote that the city is now in negotiations with a number of potential suppliers for a contract that would start on 1 January 2023, and that as such "we will ask for an exemption for our current arrangement until Jan. 1 2023 to guarantee the safety of supply and to facilitate negotiations."

She opined that the waiver "will (most likely) be granted as the condition for this has been met, namely a timely tender procedure for a new gas contract."

She warned however that the new contract "will lead to (significantly) higher costs for natural gas" and that "with the current volatile market, it is not yet possible to make a concrete statement on the extent of the increase."