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VERSAILLES, France — War has returned to Europe and the Continent will never be the same, EU heads of state and government said Friday. But as leaders gathered for a summit at the Palace of Versailles, they struggled to adapt to their frightening new reality.
On the one hand, they admitted that many old rules must now be rewritten — for example, to accommodate unprecedented new military spending.
“Two weeks ago, we woke up in a different Europe in a different world,” European Council President Charles Michel said.
At the same time, many leaders clung to old tribal instincts, with frugal countries reluctant to take on new joint debt, and Western countries hesitant about admitting new members in the east, including war-ravaged Ukraine.
Perhaps most contradictory was an insistence by some leaders, including the summit host, French President Emmanuel Macron, that Europe itself is not at war, even though they acknowledged that Russia invaded Ukraine precisely because of Kyiv’s westward trajectory toward the EU, insisted that they would ramp up military support, and agreed to impose further punishing sanctions on Moscow.
“The choice by Russia under President Putin was to bring war back to Europe,” Macron said at the summit’s closing news conference. “The unheard-of violence of Russia against Ukraine and its population is a tragic turning point for our history.”
But when pressed by a reporter about the EU’s inability to stop the conflict, Macron said: “There is a war on the ground, but we are not at war.” He added, “You’re quite right to say that we don’t have a response in the theater of war, which was triggered by Russian aggression, because we are not there in the theater of war.”
Though Macron and other leaders said that Putin’s invasion had redrawn permanently the security architecture in Europe, they also conceded that EU countries were not remotely prepared to adopt a new posture and assert hard power to stop incidents like the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, which may constitute war crimes.
“We have our way to answer to the atrocious aggression that Putin is showing,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, announcing a fourth round of international sanctions against Russia. “And we will be determined and forceful in the answer.”
Determined and forceful, perhaps, but also a bit chaotic and disorganized.
Michel, along with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, announced a proposal to increase by another €500 million the EU contribution to military support for Ukraine through an off-budget fund called the European Peace Facility. Both men gave the impression that leaders had approved the plan.
That, however, was contradicted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said that no decision had been taken. An aide to Michel later conceded that the proposal was “on the table” but would still require formal approval by the Council of the EU, with a decision perhaps next week.
The two-day summit at the ornate palace on the outskirts of Paris was originally intended as the occasion to start rethinking the EU’s debt and deficit rules, with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, former chief of the European Central Bank, at the center of the effort along with Macron.
Instead, with the agenda rewritten by war, the summit repeatedly showcased EU leaders struggling to rise to the moment with Ukraine under bombardment and more than 2 million refugees having already streamed out of the country.
Leaders wrestled with spiking energy prices, and potential disruption in supplies of critical raw materials, including agricultural products that could lead to food shortages around the world.
But the heads of state and government also spent nearly five hours debating Ukraine’s request for fast-track approval of its application for EU membership, even though no such fast-track process technically exists. The leaders eventually settled on a robust, and symbolically important, statement of support.
They noted that Ukraine’s application had already been put before the Commission for consideration with unprecedented speed, beginning a years-long bureaucratic process, and pledged to do everything possible to bring Ukraine closer to the EU in the meantime.
“Pending this and without delay,” the leaders said, ”we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family.” At Friday’s news conference, von der Leyen pointedly said: “We have opened the pathway toward us for Ukraine.”
During the summit, the leaders also agreed to try to end Europe’s reliance on energy from Russia, though there were substantial disagreements about how quickly that could be accomplished and if the goal could be achieved without driving up prices for citizens and businesses.
“We agreed to phase out our dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal imports as soon as possible,” the leaders declared in the final statement, in which they also tasked the European Commission to develop a plan on the energy goals by the end of May.
Some leaders of southern EU countries, including Draghi, used the summit to press for further joint borrowing, modeled after the landmark joint debt program in the EU’s coronavirus pandemic economic rescue and recovery plan. Draghi said the war had created “the need for a reconsideration of the whole regulatory apparatus which is justified by this emergency situation. We find this argument on the Stability Pact, we find it on the laws on state aid, we find it on the standards of agricultural products that may be imported, we find it on the electricity market.”
However, Rutte and leaders of other traditional frugal countries were quick to resist proposals on more joint debt.
“The Netherlands is not in favor of eurobonds, or joint debts issuance,” Rutte said after the summit, noting that it would be better to first redirect funds from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan that have not been spent yet.
Overall, EU officials and diplomats said that EU countries were quite united in the need to respond forcefully to Russia’s warmongering and that the disagreements on display at the summit were part of the regular give and take among national capitals with an array of different interests and sensibilities.
“There is a widespread and shared sense of urgency,” said a senior official from a northern EU country. “Issues are very complex and, therefore, a simple ‘we are united’ is not enough.”
Macron and other leaders noted the sea change in positions that had been adopted by some member countries in the weeks since Russia attacked Ukraine, including Germany’s decision to supply weapons and ramp up its own national military spending.
“Germany decided a little more than 10 days ago to carry out historic investments,” Macron said. “Denmark has also made a historical choice to submit to its people in several months the possibility of going back in the European project of security and defense.” He added, “You see it, everywhere on our Continent, historic choices are being undertaken, which mark a major turning point. We must organize that at a European level to build that common capacity when it comes to defense.”
Whether, in fact, the EU will manage to get its act together on a common security and defense strategy once and for all remains to be seen.
Von der Leyen, at the summit’s closing news conference, urged an investigation into possible war crimes by Russia, including in the bombing of a maternity hospital in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“Indeed it is atrocious, it is atrocious,” she said “This bombardment of the maternity hospital, for example. And I think there needs to be investigations about the question of war crimes. Therefore, this has to be reflected and recorded, soberly.”
“We are at day 15 of this horrible war,” von der Leyen added, noting that the EU had done its part to inflict economic damage on Russia with severe sanctions. “You see that the ruble is in freefall. It has lost more than 50 percent compared to the euro. You see that there are skyrocketing interest rates in Russia. You see soaring inflation. The rating agencies do rate the Russian bonds as junk by now, and recession is hitting the country. This is within 15 days.”
Macron said he believed the summit had helped leaders grapple with the momentous choices they face in confronting Russia’s military aggression.
“Today, we are not, we Europeans on the ground, at war,” he said. “But we must also do our share and have the courage to take historic decisions, to bear responsibility for the fact that defending democracy and our values has a cost, that making these choices of independence has a cost and it implies that we sometimes question dogmas that we had had for many years … the ways we organized things and the habits we had.”
He continued, “And I believe that I can say that the discussions of yesterday and today have led to an awareness of the Europeans here in Versailles to make progress in that direction.”
Maïa de La Baume, Lili Bayer, Giorgio Leali and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting.