Freshly re-elected French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to call for a big reflection on the future of Europe this week, arguing that the Russia-Ukraine crisis had shown the need for a “process of historical reflection”.
In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg two days after being sworn in for a second term as French president, Macron did not hesitate to play his favorite role in offering a different look at the status quo in Europe, its institutions and its safety devices. .
His intervention comes as the EU suffers from a major rift within its ranks over differences over the sixth package of sanctions against Russia, the extent of military support to Ukraine and the deadline for considering the request. of Kyiv’s accession to the EU.
These differences have prompted EU officials to call for serious discussions about whether it would be better to change the voting mechanism within the EU to make majority voting only and not unanimity.
The proposal, which is sure to raise disputes within the European bloc, aims to strengthen the effectiveness of the EU and break the deadlock on issues giving rise to polarization.
In his speech, Macron surprised everyone when he called for a new political organization to unite democracies on the European continent, pleading for a big reflection on the future of Europe.
He told the European Parliament that “a European political community…a new European organization would enable democratic European nations that adhere to our values to find a new space for political cooperation”, listing security, energy, transport , infrastructure investment and cross-border traffic. , especially for young people, as issues that the organization would address.
The new organization would allow non-EU members to join the European security architecture through other means, Macron said. Warning that Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU for decades, he suggested that Ukraine could join the “parallel European community” instead.
Ukraine began the process of applying for EU membership in February this year, four days after the Russian invasion. “We all know perfectly well that the process to enable [Ukraine] joining would take several years, possibly even decades,” Macron said.
“That’s the truth unless we decide to lower membership standards and rethink the unity of our Europe,” he added. “The European Union, given its level of integration and ambition, cannot be the only means of structuring the European continent in the short term”, he declared.
Macron also warned of Russia’s “humiliation” over the war in Ukraine, arguing against a punitive settlement against Moscow once the war is over. “When peace returns to European soil, we will have to build new security balances and together we must never give in to temptation…or to the desire for revenge because we know how much this has delighted the path of peace in the world. past,” he said. .
Macron’s proposals are sure to provoke fierce debate within the EU, which is reluctant to devise a unified strategy to deal with all the security, economic and political challenges imposed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. .
In the past, Central and Eastern European countries have opposed Macron’s ideas of promoting greater European integration, but with the security threats Europe faces today, his ideas of promoting EU sovereignty in new technologies, defence, energy and food production could gain ground.
France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, giving it extra clout in setting the agenda for the European bloc this year.
The question of whether the EU rule that foreign policy decisions, including sanctions packages, must be unanimous, has been raised by several failed attempts to reach consensus on a new sanctions package against Moscow.
In the end, the EU was forced to water down its plans to ban imports of Russian oil for the second time, underscoring further divisions over its response to the war.
The bloc will now drop a proposed ban on EU ships carrying Russian oil to third countries, a move that would have undermined Russia’s revenue from global energy exports.
Greece, which is one of the biggest shipowners in the world, was one of the member states to oppose the new measure along with Malta and Cyprus.
The move came after the EU said it would give Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic more time to comply with the ban on Russian oil following opposition from those countries.
Although the European Commission has spoken of an imminent agreement, the text of a new sanctions package against Russia, which has been amended three times to meet the objections of the countries led by Greece and Hungary, did not not yet unanimous.
The stalemate forced Brussels to accept numerous exclusions and exemptions to convince the 27 member states.
Hungary, among other countries, still refuses to support a proposed EU ban on Russian oil imports, even after talks on Monday evening between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Von der Leyen said on Twitter that his discussion with Orbán had been “helpful in clarifying issues related to sanctions and energy security”. But although they have made progress, she added that “further work is needed”.
Hungary is among the countries hoping for a longer enforcement period than most EU member states for the oil ban. He is also seeking financial support from the EU to help him move away from Russian fossil fuels, helping him invest in alternative infrastructure.
Other EU member states, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are also expected to receive special conditions in energy sanctions, given their dependence on Russian crude oil.
In another sign of the difficulties facing the bloc, a proposal by a senior EU official met with a muted response. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has proposed that the bloc seize $300 billion in frozen Russian foreign exchange reserves to help fund Ukraine’s reconstruction.
The West has already taken control of about half of Russia’s $600 billion in gold and currency reserves abroad, and authorities are now considering how these could be used to support Ukraine’s recovery.
Seizure of foreign exchange reserves would be an extraordinary move, but Borrell, in an interview with the Financial Times of London, pointed to the US decision to set aside $3.5 billion of Afghan Central Bank assets to pay for aid humanitarian aid and compensation for victims. the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
“I would be very supportive because it is full of logic. We have the money in our pockets, and someone needs to explain to me why it is good for Afghan money and not good for Russian money,” Borrell said.
Even across the Atlantic, imposing sanctions on Moscow has proven to be like walking a tightrope. On Sunday, the US administration unveiled sanctions against the executives of Gazprombank, Russia’s third-largest lender and subsidiary of state-owned energy company Gazprom.
The measures imposed on Gazprombank executives were the first involving Russia’s biggest energy company, as the West has so far avoided taking action that could lead to disruptions in gas supplies to Europe, Russia’s main customer.
A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. sanctions targeted 27 Gazprombank executives, but the measures did not freeze the company’s assets or ban transactions with it, as that is the primary means by which which Russia sells gas to Europe.
What will be the best options if the war in Ukraine continues for more months or years is an unanswered question. The answer will fully test the unity of the West.
*A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.