the output of Liz Truss as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after only 45 days in office it just adds an additional element of uncertainty in a region that was already in deep crisis. For the 27 leaders of the European Union nations gathered in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day meeting, Britain’s continuing post-Brexit woes, which they see as just desserts for its decision to leave the EU, are a sideshow. . On their agenda is the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis that has shaken their own economies.
great economic pain
Since the beginning of the war, Europe has undergone an enormous strategic evolution, unthinkable until nine months ago. European nations buried deep differences and stood united as liberal democracies against the aggression of Vladimir Putin. They are now more committed to strengthening NATO and its collective security premise and to the transatlantic partnership with the US than at any time after World War II. Finland and Sweden are ready to join the security group.
Berlin’s decision to throw off seven decades of pacifism to strengthen its army, make more weapons and send arms to Kyiv was a turning point. The EU has relaxed its immigration laws to accommodate refugees from Ukraine. Britain, one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters, is a major member of the Western alliance, but it is Eastern European EU members like Poland, who are generally voiceless, that are playing a proactive role.
The war has had serious consequences throughout the continent. The economic pain is mounting daily, and with no end to the struggle in sight, Europe is facing a dark winter of energy shortages, high inflation, and growing masses of angry and hurt people.
Forty percent of Europe’s gas comes from Russia (Germany is the largest consumer) and even after sanctions, EU countries continued to import gas. However, Putin’s punitive cuts have cut supply by nearly 90 percent. European leaders accuse Moscow of having “weaponized” gas supplies.
Nord Stream, the 1,200 km gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, has been out of service since August, when Russia closed it for maintenance work. In late September, there were leaks in the pipeline after the explosions, and a Danish investigation (the area is in Denmark’s exclusive economic zone) revealed a 50-meter hole in the pipeline. EU countries around the Baltic Sea fear the war may be drawing closer geographically.
In Germany, inflation is running at 10 percent. Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz recently said that his government would do “everything possible so that [gas] prices sink”. Earlier this month, Germany announced it would immediately implement a €96bn plan to ease pressure on consumers from rising gas prices.
Four German think tanks (ifo Institute in Munich, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Halle Institute for Economic Research, and the RWI-Leibniz Institute for Economic Research) that make joint semi-annual forecasts on the German economy, lowered their growth projections from April from 3.7 percent to 1.4 percent, and for 2023, to -0.4 percent from 3.1 percent. In a joint statement, the institutes said high gasoline prices would push Germany into recession.
Severe test for the alliance
There is concern that economic pressures could reduce, and perhaps end, Europe’s staying power vis-à-vis Russia. The meeting in Brussels on October 20-21 hopes to protect the alliance against this tension. “Division is not a luxury we can afford,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted on Wednesday. “On our agenda: the energy crisis. We must urgently intensify our three lines of action: reduce demand, guarantee security of supply and contain prices”.
Some EU countries have been discussing a price cap on gas imports so they don’t compete with each other for supplies. But others have reservations about a Europe-only mechanism, which could push suppliers to sell to those in other regions willing to pay more. Some want the price cap to apply only to Russia; others want it for all gas suppliers. Michel expressed his confidence that, despite “various national constraints”, Europe will approach the energy debate “in a constructive manner, mindful of our urgent collective interest”.
European diplomats insist that “people are far ahead of their governments in supporting Ukraine,” and that they are willing to sacrifice their comforts for the democratic and international principles they hold dear. That claim is likely to be proven soon, and the possible passage of one or both houses of the US Congress into Republican hands after the November midterms could add another moving part to the mix.
Putin’s nuclear threats
In a survey conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in 10 EU countries in May, the majority of respondents blamed Russia for the war and endorsed full support for Ukraine; however, they were divided into what the Council called the “field of peace” and the “field of justice.”
The former wanted the war to end quickly, even at the cost of Ukrainian concessions. The latter camp believed that Russia should be severely punished. A third of all respondents were in the peace camp. A little more than a fifth thought that only the clear defeat of Russia could bring peace to Europe.
But Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories and Russia’s shelling of Ukrainian cities that have killed many civilians this month have helped shape the public mood. Chancellor Scholz is under immense pressure from coalition partners to increase arms supplies to Kyiv at what is seen as a turning point in the war. Last week, Germany rushed air defense systems to Ukraine as Russia launched missiles at its neighbor.
Putin’s nuclear rhetoric can also function as a unifier. His threat to use “all available means” and reference to “various available means” to defend Russian territory have been understood as references to nuclear weapons. While opinion is divided on whether he would actually use them, the threats have further fueled fear and insecurity in Europe, making NATO likely to become even more relevant. The n-word also helps prevent US attention from drifting to China.
Absence of peace efforts
There is no clarity or consensus on the results of the war. The bare minimum may be that Ukraine should take back all of its territory, but does that include Crimea? What should a Russian defeat look like?
In their joint statement after a virtual meeting last week, the G7 leaders said they “welcome[d] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy’s provision for a just peace”, which should include “respecting the protection of territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Charter of the United Nations; safeguard Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the future; ensure Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction, including exploring ways to do so with Russian funding; pursuing accountability for Russian crimes committed during the war.”
Any mediated diplomatic effort to end the war should be able to give all sides a sense of having won something, if not the war. Europe should know this from experience. But all attempts so far have started with the premise that Ukraine cannot be allowed to lose and Russia cannot win. Perhaps that is why diplomacy has not made any contribution.
Turkey made the most serious efforts to bring the two sides to the table in March, when the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met in Ankara, but that effort ended in failure. At this point, the war could be said to have stalled, but it is still not the painful stalemate that usually brings the warring parties to the table.