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EUROPEAN UNION

‘Tectonic shift’: How the Ukraine crisis has changed the EU

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rather than "humiliating" the EU as one British newspaper suggested, has brought member states together and forced them to act decisively and cooperate in new ways, writes Claudia Delpero.

'Tectonic shift': How the Ukraine crisis has changed the EU
France's President Emmanuel Macron and EU leaders pose for a family photograph at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, on March 10, 2022, ahead of the EU leaders summit. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

“Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises,” said Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union. 

That prediction has proven true time and again since the first six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) decided, in the aftermath of World War II, to pool together to make new conflicts among them impossible.

Other countries later joined the bloc, usually after economic or political shocks. The United Kingdom applied for membership (and was initially rejected twice) after the Suez crisis and the dismantling of the empire. Greece and Spain saw the EU accession, in the 1980s, as a way to complete the path to democracy after painful years of dictatorship. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War paved the way for the access of Central and Eastern European states, which were previously part of the Soviet bloc. 

Another bloody war, which ended with the break up of former Yugoslavia, led Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to become candidate countries. Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to apply too. 

As the EU expanded, its unity has been tested. The financial crisis of 2008 opened a rift between wealthier and poorer economies with Greece facing bankruptcy and almost falling out of the Eurozone. But at the price of harsh austerity measures, a precarious solidarity prevailed and the euro, the EU’s flagship monetary project, was saved.

It took the UK decision to leave the bloc, in 2016, to find common purpose again. In the negotiation with a departing member, EU countries saw the need to protect their common interests and recognised the cost of going alone.

A gigantic leap was then made at the outbreak of the pandemic. Facing a dramatic economic crisis, the leaders of the EU and the 27 member states spent four days and nights together to design a recovery plan worth 750 billion euros, the largest stimulus package ever conceived in Europe. 

EU leaders attached the package to environmental and digital objectives to not only boost, but radically transform the economy. They also agree to partly finance the plan with common debt, another first and a further commitment to a united Europe.

Now the war in Ukraine is an “immense trauma… a human, political and humanitarian drama”, but also, “an element that will lead to completely redefine the architecture of Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron before the informal EU summit this week in Versailles.

EU leaders have cautiously opened the door to Ukraine’s EU accession. “We will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family,” they said in a declaration. But they did not commit to make this easier or faster than previous enlargements.

In the past two weeks, however, the EU has already changed dramatically in at least three other ways. 

The first is related to the decision to boost defence cooperation. EU leaders in Versailles agreed to “increase substantially defence expenditures… and with defence capabilities developed in a collaborative way within the European Union”.

Started as a peace project, the bloc is now actively reinforcing its military capacity and, at the end of February, made the unprecedented decision to use €500 million from the EU budget to fund the purchase and delivery and weapons for Ukraine, an amount later doubled in Versailles.

Germany also changed its historical stance, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the country would send weapons to support Ukraine’s defence against Russia and significantly increase its military spending. 

The EU Treaty contains a clause that obliges EU states to help “by all the means in their power” an EU country that suffers an armed aggression. So Germany’s shift was perhaps inevitable after the UK, the biggest military power in Europe with France, decided to leave the bloc. 

Second, the way EU countries have welcomed people fleeing Ukraine marks a U-turn in the refugee policy. More than 2 million people have sought sanctuary in the EU in the past two weeks and, for a first time again, EU countries unanimously agreed to use a ‘temporary protection’ mechanism introduced in 2001 in the aftermath of the war in former Yugoslavia. 

Ukrainian citizens can already travel to the EU visa-free. The emergency mechanism, however, grants them residence and working rights with reduced formalities and without the need to apply for asylum. 

The EU has been accused of double standards for not having been able to make similar decisions for previous conflicts, such as Syria’s, but now that the system has been activated, it will be harder to backtrack in the future. 

Third, the EU adopted a raft of massive sanctions against Russia, from the termination of technology transfer to limits to the import and export of some goods and sanctions against individuals with links to the Putin’s regime. It remains, however, dependent on Russia’s energy. Oil, coal and gas make up 62 percent of Russia’s exports to the bloc, according to the EU statistical office Eurostat.

Now the EU has agreed to reduce imports of Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of the year and is discussing a complete phase out of Russian fossil fuels by 2027.

In the short term, the EU aims to find alternative sources of gas. But in the longer term, the plan is to reduce demand through energy efficiency, including a massive building renovation programme, and a boost to renewable energy, accelerating plans to make the European economy carbon neutral by 2050. 

If the EU manages to become more independent, greener and more humane, it may be true that the Ukraine conflict will represent, as EU leaders said, a “tectonic shift in European history”. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

Member comments

  1. Yes, it will be a huge ‘tectonic shift’ in europeans wallets, that’s for sure because all these political decisions will not affect the ones who made the decisions, it will affect the people so enjoy your ‘leaders’ decisions. In fact, our dependency on russian energy sources was made years ago by EU bureaucrats/politicians and the decision of phasing out this dependency of russian fuels will lead to what? To an increase of USA/Qatar lng gas dependecy and change who we are dependant and increase even more the energy costs as they’re around 40% more expensive than russian gas? Perfect, are you enjoying the inflation rate? Don’t worry, support these decisions as you’ll enjoy even more the economic crash that is comming

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ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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