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EU leaders are heading to Versailles tomorrow for an informal summit hosted by Emmanuel Macron, as the war in Ukraine is providing the French president a prime opportunity to push forward his EU sovereignty agenda.
We’ll look at what’s expected to be discussed and why the idea of fresh joint borrowing dedicated to handling the impact of the war is not flying in several capitals, nor in the European Commission. (Here’s the FT’s take on the EU’s efforts to maintain its thus-far united front on Russia.)
Elsewhere in the EU, we’ll explore why Matteo Salvini‘s latest attempt to distance himself from his former idol, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has backfired spectacularly at the Polish-Ukrainian border.
And in lighter news, we’ll bring you a dispatch from Dublin on how Irish clergymen have chosen to express their disdain and horror at the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has come as a salutary shock to the EU, galvanizing its 27 members into taking swift action to reduce their dependence on imported energy and their reliance on the US-led NATO defense umbrella, write Victor Mallet and Sarah White in Paris.
Emmanuel Macron’s longstanding warnings on the need for the EU to reinforce its economic and strategic autonomy have thus been dramatically vindicated in the past two weeks – and it would be out of character for the French president not to press his advantage at the summit he is hosting in Versailles this week.
The official aim of the meeting is to develop a bland-sounding “new European model for growth and investment”. But France, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of June, is expected to push for a new round of joint crisis measures that will not necessarily find favor with more fiscally cautious member states in northern Europe.
The most controversial of these plans would be new joint borrowing – modeled on the € 800bn post-pandemic recovery fund – that would finance measures to reduce dependence on Russian gas and even joint defense projects. The aim would be to create an EU version of France’s embryonic national “resilience plan” to deal with the impact of fuel price spikes and possible shortages on households and businesses.
“That is one of the topics of discussion,” said a distinctly cagey French government official yesterday. Another claimed at the weekend that this was not a specifically French initiative and that “a lot of people are thinking about it”, adding that one solution might be to adapt the existing fund known as NextGenerationEU.
Macron triumphed back in 2020 in persuading then German chancellor Angela Merkel to back the pandemic plan and have it financed by common EU debt, but he is cautious about trying to push things too far with her successor, Olaf Scholz, who was finance minister at the time and whose officials are cold on this topic.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, hinted at the awkwardness over the idea of a new fund when he told a news conference in Strasbourg yesterday: “We have no such plans in the commission. . . I don’t know if there might be in some member states. ”
Even without announcing a fresh round of common debt-raising or a new fund altogether, the summit is likely to commit the EU to measures that would have seemed revolutionary only a few weeks ago. A draft summit declaration obtained by the Financial Times said the leaders would agree “to phase out our dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal imports”.
And Macron, who is standing for re-election next month, will continue to push for the more robust and more federal Europe he has been recommending since he took office five years ago. In a television interview on Monday, he argued that the war in Ukraine showed the need for more EU autonomy – political, military and in terms of energy supply. “The conclusion of all this is more Europe,” he said.
Chart du jour: Sanctions impact
Western sanctions against Russia are a double-edged weapon, since they impose significant costs on ordinary people and have a patchy record of bringing about regime change. Putin’s crackdown on freedom of expression and ramped-up propaganda may result in a majority of Russians blaming the west for economic hardship. Still, the west must carry on and support Ukraine, writes Martin Wolf. (More here)
Italy’s rightwing leader, Matteo Salvini, never made any secret of his unabashed admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The far-right populist, who was Italy’s deputy prime minister for 15 months until September 2019, has worn a T-shirt with Putin’s image in the European Parliament – and posed in the same T-shirt, with a cheesy grin and a thumbs- up, on a visit to Red Square in Moscow.
Salvini also expressed his adulation on social media, repeatedly comparing Putin favored to western leaders, like former US President Barack Obama, and Italy’s own President Sergio Mattarella. His party, the League, had a formal tie-up with Putin’s United Russia, and he publicly criticized the EU’s sanctions against Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But with the world horrified at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – and Italy’s next general election due next year – Salvini is frantically trying to recast himself as the humane, heartbroken sympathizer of ordinary Ukrainians suffering under Russian aggression.
Days after the invasion began, Salvini laid flowers at the doorstep of the Ukrainian embassy in Rome, then made the sign of the cross. “A prayer for peace,” he tweeted. His Twitter timeline is now filled with grim pictures from Ukraine – and his self-claimed angst at such scenes.
However, the Italian politician’s effort at an image makeover went off the rails this week in Poland’s small town of Przemysl, where Salvini had gone ostensibly to show his concern, and provide solace, for the flow of Ukrainian refugees.
Instead, the town’s mayor, Wojciech Bakun, presented Salvini with a Putin T-shirt identical to the one he had so proudly worn in Red Square and invited him to put it on for a visit to a humanitarian center at the border, and “see what your friend has done. ”
The image of the mayor with the T-shirt unfurled, while Salvini hangs his head in embarrassment, has now gone viral on Italian social media.
LEGA leader and Putin supporter Matteo Salvini went to the Polish border where refugees keep flowing in.
Przemysl mayor Bakun refused to welcome Salvini showing his t-shirt with Putin: “Come to the border and criticize your friend Putin!”pic.twitter.com/s4AX1YewSt
– Antonello Guerrera (@antoguerrera) March 8, 2022
“I wanted him to see with his own eyes what his friend had led to, and also HIM as Putin’s supporter,” Bakun wrote on Facebook after the meeting.
Salvini is not the only rightwing western populist now coming undone due to close ties to Putin’s action.
French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has ordered the destruction of 1.2mn election flyers that featured a photo of her proudly shaking hands with Putin in Moscow in 2017, with the caption “a woman of conviction”.
But Salvini’s humiliating run-in with the Polish mayor may be an even harder image to sweep aside – and even more damaging – than all his previous messages of commendation for the Russian leader.
From the country that gave the world the rule-breaking Father Teda parish priest and a provider of ecclesiastical supplies have taken the law into their own hands in Ireland to protest against the invasion of Ukraine, writes Jude Webber in Dublin.
Desmond Wisley was bailed yesterday after he reversed his truck – which is used to deliver wine, bread, altar cloths, candles and vestments to churches – into the gates of the Russian embassy in Dublin.
A large truck has crashed through the gates of the Russian embassy in south Dublin. One man has been arrested. pic.twitter.com/35yLDfGhEd
– RTÉ News (@rtenews) March 7, 2022
“I’ve done it for this lady here, and her kids, who were killed in Irpin today,” he said, holding up a photograph of the victims of the conflict. To the applause of a handful of protesters, he said he was creating a “safe corridor for the Russian ambassador to leave Ireland”. He added: “I’ve done my bit, lads.”
Days earlier, Father Fergal MacDonagh threw red paint – symbolizing the blood of innocent victims – over the gates of the embassy, saying he was moved to action after being outraged at Moscow’s bombing of a maternity hospital. “Putin will face justice in this world or the next,” he said.
Ireland’s government has resisted calls for Russian Ambassador Yuri Filatov to be expelled from Dublin, saying it was important to keep diplomatic channels open.
The embassy, located on the aptly named Orwell Road and with a large staff believed to include a sizeable contingent of intelligence operatives, said in a statement it “condemns this act of criminal insanity”, which it branded “senseless and barbaric”. Ireland’s ambassador to Russia was summoned to the foreign ministry in Moscow to explain why the police stood by without intervening.
Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar appealed to Irish people to protest against the invasion of Ukraine – but peacefully and without incurring criminal damage, saying such “foolish” acts would be misrepresented on Russian state television as Irish people being involved in violent acts against Russians.
What to watch today
Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas speaks in the European Parliament in Strasbourg
US vice-president Kamala Harris visits Poland
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gives a speech in Paris on Europe
US oil ban: The Biden administration yesterday went ahead and announced an oil ban on Russian imports, while acknowledging for the first time that they diverge from Europe on measures aimed at stopping the Russian war in Ukraine.
Shell pulls out: London-listed energy group Shell has said it will withdraw fully from Russia and immediately stop new purchases of Russian oil, days after the energy major was criticized for profiting from a cargo of cheap Russian crude.
Danone stays: French conglomerate Danone will continue to operate in Russia, despite a western corporate exodus, with its CEO yesterday ruling out the sale of any of the group’s businesses.
UK fraud: The EU’s top court has ruled the UK must reimburse Brussels for allowing fraudsters to flood the bloc with undervalued imports of clothes and shoes from China and avoid paying € 2.7bn in duties. The case dates back to when the UK was still an EU member state.
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