A downside to the leisurely European summer is the intimidating to-do list waiting to return. With war still raging on the EU’s doorstep, this rentrée feels particularly daunting. Regular meetings of union ministers resume just days after the six-month anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Ukraine has defended itself against its giant neighbor more effectively than many in Europe would have thought possible at the time. But as winter approaches, Europe is feeling the side effects of war more and more. It will be a challenge to keep the eu together despite painfully high energy prices.
No one sitting at the table at an EU summit doubts who bore the brunt of Russian aggression. Ukrainians were slaughtered, and Ukraine will one day need the kind of financial aid that Western Europe received after World War II to rebuild its devastated cities. The price for Russia was also high. His army has been humiliated, heavily sanctioned, most of his remaining civil liberties have been wiped out and Mr Putin has proven incompetent and despotic.
The cost to Europe is harder to pin down. Some of this is directly related to the conflict, such as the checks issued by the eu to keep the Ukrainian government afloat. That money wasn’t as important as America’s supply of arms and intelligence to the Ukrainian army that kept Ukraine at war. But European generosity has also helped.
Still, the biggest costs to Europe have been indirect. Topping the list is the economic damage it’s causing: Russia has resisted Western sanctions by curbing the flow of gas on which Europe depends. There is also a cost to adapting to a geopolitical environment in which most EU countries can no longer save on defence. And politically, the continent feels the six-month crisis mode. This has tested the union’s effectiveness – and will continue to do so.
The economic costs are the most immediate. European energy prices rose again this week as Russia announced that its Nord Stream 1 pipeline would undergo another “maintenance” from August 31, raising suspicions that it may never reopen. In parts of Europe, gas is now trading at over $1,000 a barrel of oil, an absurd level. Governments face a choice: either pay the electricity bills that would otherwise blow many household budgets, or suffer a recession as consumers are broke. In any case, public finances will be strained, just as inflation – also caused in part by rising energy prices – has ended the era of free borrowing. (To make matters worse, the euro has fallen below par against the dollar, its lowest level in two decades.) For most people and businesses, the vague summertime prospect of having to pay more to keep homes warm and factories on Keeping going is about to become a harsh winter reality. Politicians trying to arrange another tranche of aid to Ukraine will have a harder time with pensioners trembling at home.
The strain on public finances will come when the need to spend more on defense will be felt most. The war has highlighted how little military equipment Europe could spare to help Ukraine and how ill-prepared many countries are to defend their own territory. Germany has been the most vocal in emphasizing the need for a new approach: The turning point, a change in the zeitgeist, will result in an increase of 100 billion euros (sadly only 100 billion dollars today) for its military in the coming years. Others promise to increase their defense budgets, including more spending coordinated at the EU level. A short, sharp conflict could have caused such promises to be forgotten soon after they were made. The protracted battles mean they must be acted upon.
The costs related to European cohesion are the most difficult to quantify. Crises have the potential to create unity within the eu, but over time they can also create divisions. The early reaction to the war showed that Europe acted as one. All those in need were granted refuge, Ukraine was given the morale-boosting status of an EU candidate and sanctions were agreed. The need for urgent action has masked rifts in Europe, particularly between hawkish member states on the bloc’s eastern fringes, which believe the continent’s fate will be decided in Ukraine, and most western EU members worried about the risks of escalation make.
After six waves of painstakingly negotiated sanctions since February, nobody expects much more until there is renewed Russian outrage. In recent weeks, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have been pushing for visa bans for Russians. The proposal, which will be discussed by EU foreign ministers on August 31, has been largely repelled by western Europeans, for whom it smacks of collective punishment. The resulting inertia will tend to widen the fissures. If America reduces its support for Ukraine after November’s midterm elections, questions will be raised as to how Europe must – or can – fill the gap.
The price is correct
In the early stages of the war, Europe denied its costs: even asking citizens to adjust the thermostat felt like too much of a stretch. It changes. Public lighting is dimmed, cold showers are encouraged. Emmanuel Macron, France’s President, pleaded on August 19 for a willingness to “pay the price for our freedom and our values”. To be on the safe side, the Belgian prime minister has warned of five to ten difficult winters.
That’s a welcome change in rhetoric. It is better to make explicit the cost of supporting Ukraine than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Because Europe has no choice but to stand firm. No matter what the hawks in Warsaw or Prague fear, it would be far too dangerous to pressure Ukraine to surrender in order for Russia to restore gas supplies. The cost of deterring aggression on the continent is high. But it must not be avoided.
Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
This is what the EU looks like after a decade of terror (18 August)
A changing climate is bad news for a continent that doesn’t like change (13 Aug)
Emmanuel Macron is not as soft on Russia as his critics claim (3 August)