Why the EU has an unexpected spring in its step

Why the EU has an unexpected spring in its step

The flags of the European Union and Ukraine fly in front of the European Parliament in France. (AFP)

The 27 EU presidents and prime ministers, making final preparations ahead of their meeting next Monday and Tuesday, have a new spring in their step, despite the war in Ukraine, which is approaching its 100th day.
Despite this traumatic dispute – as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which could worsen further this fall and winter, and Brexit-related issues over the Northern Ireland protocol – a significant number of European politicians feel that there is now a historic window of opportunity to move the integration project forward.
While this optimistic mood may surprise some, crises have often been key moments of opportunity for EU leaders seeking “ever closer union”. The period since Russia invaded Ukraine has been truly historic for the continent, with unexpected unity among the 27 states around several large waves of sanctions against Moscow, as well as a significant breakthrough on internal European projects in areas ranging from defense to energy.
However, this current window of opportunity did not begin in February; it actually dates back to at least the start of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. The pandemic has led to a number of real breakthroughs that otherwise would not have happened, including the €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund (801 billion dollars) which committed the bloc to the principle of mutualized debt as a financing tool for the first time in its history, potentially paving the way for future increased supranational powers of taxation and a more federalized continent. While this program was primarily economic in nature, it represents a major political milestone in the history of post-war European integration.
This crisis-generated window of opportunity was intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And just like during the pandemic, there have been key developments that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
An example is energy policy, where significant changes are underway, brought about by the fact that Russia’s war chest is replenished daily with European money through its payments for oil and gas. At the time of the invasion, the EU depended on Russia for around 40% of its natural gas and a quarter of its oil imports, with the 27 member states paying around €1 billion a day to Moscow for these supplies.

A significant number of European politicians feel that there is now a historic window of opportunity to push the integration project forward.

Andrew Hammond

Last week, the EU launched its new “REPowerEU” plan with the main objective of eliminating Russian gas entirely from the European energy equation before 2027, and two-thirds before the end of the year. Brussels also hopes that a new oil embargo will be announced this month.
The European Commission says that 95% of the €300 billion in funding for the REPowerEU plan will go to energy transition, thus accelerating the Green New Deal. Additionally, the target for green energy in the EU’s energy mix has been increased to 45% by 2030 from its current target of 40%, thanks to measures such as simplifying the process of authorization for renewable energy projects.
Brussels is allowing increased purchases of natural gas from countries like the United States, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf States, producing more biomethane and keeping coal and nuclear power plants running longer. In addition, he also wants to raise the EU’s binding energy savings target for 2030 from 9% to 13% and reduce demand for oil and gas by 5% by encouraging people to use less energy.
Another example of rapidly shifting sands is defence, with Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO, while Denmark is revising its opt-out clause which has so far kept it out of the EU common defense policy. Brussels is also pushing forward a European Defense Action Plan, with strategic military autonomy high on the EU political agenda.
On the international front, another factor that has made the EU think bolder is the presidency of Joe Biden. His tenure saw a significant shift in Washington’s approach from the Donald Trump era. Some tensions remain in transatlantic relations and a trade agreement between the United States and the EU is not close to materializing. However, the tensions so evident from 2017 to early 2021 have largely been pushed aside, at least until 2025, when a Republican (perhaps even Trump) could claim the White House.
This underscores that while EU leaders are currently feeling center stage, this may not remain the case if more storm clouds gather. Little can be taken for granted and the decisions taken in the coming months will help define the longer-term political and economic character of the bloc in the face of new challenges, both domestic and foreign, that loom on the horizon. .

• Andrew Hammond is a partner at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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