European Solidarity in the Face of Uncertainty

Discussions on NATO and E.U. expansion, energy and climate policies, as well as connections with the United States, China, Russia and Ukraine will dominate Davos talks.

At next week’s World Economic Forum, Europe’s multiple crises — from territorial warfare and economic stress to energy disruptions and humanitarian issues — will form an undercurrent for discussions around cooperation in a fragmented world. Rapidly-enacted policies on the continent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February seek to bring solidarity to these matters — a ray of hope amidst chaos — though deeper challenges remain ahead.

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The European Union and Britain have reacted swiftly to the crisis in Ukraine, with nine rounds of economic sanctions against Russia, a welcoming reception of Ukrainian refugees, and essential financial and military aid. To reduce dependence on Russia for energy, especially natural gas, Europe has had to grapple with the political pressures stemming from price increases – yet it has persisted.

According to Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive of the European Policy Center in Brussels: “The European Union has responded faster and more united than anticipated.” With different countries united in their understanding that this conflict is not only about Ukraine but also about liberal democracy and global security, Europe must now take on the challenge of making deeper structural changes.

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These include enlargement matters, working together with allies through NATO, and forming future ties with both Washington D.C. and Beijing – all while keeping Ukraine’s promise of membership in both the EU and NATO in mind for an indefinite future.

Europe is split on how the war in Ukraine should come to an end. Countries of the Central and Eastern bloc, with bitter memories of Soviet occupation, are calling for a Russian defeat and full removal from all sovereign Ukrainian land – including that which was annexed in 2014.

This conflict has only further reinforced the importance of NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance; many believe that the United States must remain in its position as Europe’s ultimate defender of freedom and security.

Nations in what Donald H. Rumsfeld labeled “Old Europe” – including France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain – have continued to lend their support to Ukraine despite the rising economic cost. There is an understanding here that Ukraine’s Crimean region can never be fully reclaimed and a negotiated peace with Russia as a neighbor with its own insecurities must be established for any long-term stability.

The differences between “New Europe” – which views security as being against Russia – and “Old Europe” are made most clear by French President Emmanuel Macron’s perspective of security as being with Russia. But so far, President Vladimir V. Putin has not shown any sign of negotiation or engaging in serious peace talks.

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Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, expressed astonishment at Europe’s unified stance. Though they fear that populists may take advantage of the situation to push Ukraine into a premature peace. As the war progresses, divisions between camps will only grow deeper.

Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome has a more optimistic outlook on Europe’s current state. She stated that Europe has shown great progress in energy conservation and lessened their reliance on Russian energy – specifically natural gas. Brussels has also been introducing measures such as coordinated energy storage and gas price regulations, although these have had little effect so far.

Russia’s gas exports have diminished since June; yet imports still remain high and are providing financial support to the Kremlin. It is estimated that Europe’s total gas consumption decreased by nearly a quarter in 2022 due to businesses ceasing production – Germany alone experiencing a drop from half reliance in 2021 to none this year. Giovanni Sgaravatti of Bruegel reported that overall imports decreased from 46% to 24% over the course of one year.

Governments have responded to the steep rise in energy prices by instituted subsidies for companies and individuals. Germany alone has pledged €200 billion to this effort, more than double its own military spending over four years – an expenditure that has been criticized by less affluent and wise nations. In light of Covid-19’s effect on world debt levels and prioritization of climate goals seen in international talks such as Davos, it is unclear how much longer governments can afford such monetary support.

Europe must now turn away from Russian energy sources and towards liquefied natural gas from other nations like Qatar and the United States – a reliance that comes with its own worries regarding Washington. The need for the U.S.’s security guarantee against Russia’s aggressive efforts to gain control of Europe’s security order lead to European Union abandoning the strategic autonomy project formerly ran alongside NATO.

European institutions like the European Commission have been successful in employing existing agencies such as the European Peace Facility to fund military assistance for Ukraine. This has been coupled with an allocation of €300 billion from the Covid recovery fund to facilitate a shift towards renewable energy, ultimately lessening Europe’s reliance on Russian sources.

Despite this unity in some regards, there have been divisions when it comes to shoring up defense capabilities. Resources have been taken mainly from countries such as South Korea, Israel and the United States, instead of relying on resources within Europe itself. As a result, Europe is seen as being less capable defensively and more dependent on U.S. support

Despite trans-Atlantic unity and support of Ukraine, there remain some significant challenges ahead. Promises for membership in the European Union and NATO have not been met with any concrete plans yet, leaving the issue of security guarantees for the nation unresolved while conflict continues. Decisions on when the war will end, how Ukraine will be safeguarded and who is responsible for paying for its rebuilding will have far reaching implications for both organizations.

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