EU commission president: No signs of Russian de-escalation
EU Commissioners and leaders will try to woo guests at a three-day event in Florence from today in a bid to convince the world the bloc is “fit for the Next Generation”. The conference will be held from May 5 to 7 and will focus on the future of the EU. The event’s invitation reads: “Two years from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU’s importance in shaping a better future has never been clearer.
“The State of the Union is a platform for experts and civil society members from all over the world to debate urgent crises.
“This year’s edition of the EU’s annual policy conference will focus on the European Union’s role in a constantly evolving global landscape.
“Leaders and Experts from all over the world will deal with issues ranging from multilateral governance to sustainability and resilience, democracy and the rule of law, to the developments in attitudes to migration, the future of digitalisation, and how crisis can fuel change.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is not expected to join the event, but her Vice-President Josep Borrell will give a speech on Friday on the security architecture of the bloc.
Free movement chief Commissioner Marie-Helene Boulanger will also participate this afternoon.
Regardless of the enthusiasm that will be shown to boast about the EU at the event, the bloc is appearing more divided than ever this year.
Speaking to Express.co.uk ahead of the conference, Nexit Denktank researcher Gabriel van de Bloemfontein said: “It is really strange to me that some unelected bureaucrats have the audacity to speak about democracy on behalf of the Dutch people.
“They’re not more democratic than China. Just by saying they’re democrats, doesn’t mean they really are.
“If the EU truly cared about what the people think, they would have looked very carefully into the mirror when the British voted to leave in 2016. They did not do this for one second, but instead they accelerated their federalist ambitions.
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“During this State of the Union they will say how glorious and strong the EU is, while in reality it is a very divided artificial union. They can barely ever agree on important topics such as sanctions, rule of law and gay rights.
“Stronger together? More like weaker together.”
Member states are increasingly clashing among themselves and the EU Commission over issues of rule of law, sanctions against Russia, energy reforms and trade.
Over the past few years, the EU executive has been locking horns with Poland and Hungary over rule of law disputes culminating with the Commission officially triggering a mechanism that could see Budapest lose its funds.
The so-called rule of law mechanism was triggered last month after being introduced in recent years to combat EU states’ misuse of EU funds, something that Hungary has been accused of repeatedly.
Despite years of criticism by rights campaigners that he was channelling EU funds to his associates, Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive election victory earlier this year.
The European Commission responded by launching its new sanction tool.
Vera Jourova, deputy head of the Brussels-based Commission, said: “We identified issues that might be breaching the rule of law in Hungary and affect the EU budget.
“Hungary will have to reply to our concerns and propose remedial measures.”
Poland has also been threatened by the Commission with the same mechanism but it has so far not been punished by the EU executive.
Denouncing the Commission’s war on Poland and Hungary, Italian MEP Susanna Ceccardi said: “The European Commission is using the most subtle means against Hungary and Poland simply because these nations have center-right governments.
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“The announcement of the start of the procedure came right after Viktor Orban’s victory in the recent elections, incredibly and shamefully. What is it but a punishment and a warning against those voters who voted against the will of the European left? And what could be further from democracy than such blackmail?”
Poland, as Ms Ceccardi pointed out, has received over 3 million refugees from Ukraine.
She continued: “This is why Europe should show its solidarity and not threaten countries with useless sanctions. We have heard many legitimate concerns about respect for the rule of law, but we are underestimating a much more serious danger: that the principle of subsidiarity on which the Union is founded is violated.”
On Ukraine and Russia the bloc is also deeply divided.
The European Union proposed its toughest sanctions yet against Russia on Wednesday, including a phased oil embargo, as Moscow pressed an offensive in eastern Ukraine and close Russian ally Belarus announced large-scale army drills.
But a first meeting of EU envoys on Wednesday ended without a deal, mostly because of some countries’ criticism of the oil ban and other oil-related measures, such as a ban on EU shipping services for Russian oil, officials said.
The EU depends on Russian oil and gas, and faces the task of finding alternatives when energy prices have surged.
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A handful of Central European countries are concerned that the halt will come too soon for them to adapt, even though diplomats said Hungary and Slovakia would be given until the end of 2023.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Facebook that, even with that extension, Hungary could only agree to the measures if crude oil imports from Russia via pipeline were exempt from the sanctions. Slovakia has publicly asked for a three-year transition period.
Reluctance to deliver measures that damage EU economies as well as Moscow faded in recent weeks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought horrific images of slaughter in towns and concern about a renewed offensive in the east of the country.
The Commission’s measures include phasing out supplies of Russian crude oil in six months and refined products by the end of 2022. It also proposed to ban in a month’s time all shipping, brokerage, insurance and financing services offered by EU companies for the transport of Russian oil worldwide.
If agreed, the embargo would echo the actions of the United States and Britain, which have already imposed bans to cut one of the largest income streams to the Russian economy, as the West buys more than half of its crude and petroleum products from Russia.
Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic raised concerns about the oil embargo at a meeting of envoys from the EU’s 27 governments on Wednesday, a source said, noting however that a deal could be achieved at another meeting on Thursday or later this week.
The EU’s reliance on Russian energy has sparked fury in the European Parliament on Tuesday.
Speaking at the latest plenary session, ID Group leader Marco Zanni said: “Today we realize that we need to become more autonomous about procurement, but I urge everyone not to repeat the same mistakes of the past: switching from Russian to Chinese dependence, for example, cannot be considered a winning strategy.
The highest officials of the Union must reconsider the decisions of the past and reflect on the answers to the enormous questions that the dramatic conflict in Ukraine has posed to us: is this still the right direction to follow? Was it wise to rely on the leadership of a single country to outline the political and strategic path of an entire continent? Is it really essential to insist on proposing ideological recipes for real problems? What is needed now is more pragmatism, less ideology; more concrete actions, fewer announcements. On the topics you touched on: work, energy, environment and defence.
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“To find a solution, the EU can refer precisely to the energy issue. As we are seeing, the energy mixes vary from country to country, needs and lifestyles are different, depending on the capital in which we are located. I hope that this state of affairs, which is both reality and metaphor, can finally push these European institutions to abandon the one size fits all rhetoric which in many cases has made the completion of the European project itself an obstacle and not a resource as it should. to be. It is not a crime to admit mistakes and change course, but it must be done in time.”
On Green policies, one of Ms von der Leyen’s dearest projects for the bloc, member states are yet to agree on a common strategy with French President pushing for nuclear energy to be labelled green and northern countries trying to oppose the move.
The French President hopes that having the sustainable energy label could boost France’s struggling nuclear energy industry, which was bailed out by the state in 2017 following construction delays and cost overruns.
But Mr Macron’s ambition to classify nuclear energy as green has already been met with opposition from other EU member states including Germany.
The French leader was also sent a thinly-veiled threat by Austrian leader Karl Nehammer.
Mr Nehammer said: “Austria is clearly against nuclear energy, we are against a green washing of nuclear energy, this is a good tradition in Austria.
“We have allies here, including Luxembourg, but of course also powerful opponents, who are proponents of nuclear power.
“But we will not shy away from this discussion and will continue it vehemently.”
France generates about three quarters of its electricity in nuclear reactors operated by state-owned utility EDF.
The European Union is preparing a rulebook on climate friendly investments, which will define which activities can be labelled as green in sectors including transport and buildings.
The EU’s aim is to restrict the green investment label to climate-friendly activities, steer cash into low-carbon projects and stop companies or investors making unsubstantiated environmental claims.
Member states seem to also struggle to agree on its enlargement. Last year, EU leaders failed to come to an agreement over Ms von der Leyen’s plans to supersize the bloc.
The 27 leaders promised future membership to their six Balkan neighbours restating a pledge first made 18 years ago, but they brushed aside calls for a 2030 goal for fear of a backlash at home over migration.
After weeks of deliberation, EU leaders agreed that Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have a place in the world’s largest trading bloc if they fulfil the criteria on areas from judicial reform to economics.
But with the “enlargement process” blocked by various disputes in Brussels and Serbian political leaders reluctant to ever recognise Kosovo’s 2008 independence, many in the Balkans feel the EU declaration is an empty statement.
The Commission President called the Balkan countries “family”, while French President Emmanuel Macron struck a conciliatory tone, saying the Balkans were “at the heart of Europe” and deserved a pathway to membership.
But northern countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands fear a repeat of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.
Bulgaria is against North Macedonia, already a NATO member, joining because of a language dispute.
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Speaking of migration, southern EU member states have been locking horns with their northern neighbours for years in a relentlessly failed bid to come up with a new migration policy for the equal allocation of refugees across the bloc.
To make things worse, ahead of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the pressuring situation on the border between the bloc and Belarus pushed more EU leaders to back boarder walls and fences last year, urging the EU Commission to approve funds for their construction.
The first to propose such a drastic physical solution was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the midst of the 2015 migration crisis that crippled the bloc.
At the time, Mr Orban was alone in his quest, which was promptly dismissed by the then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
When five years ago Greece proposed a wall on its border with Turkey, Mr Juncker also dismissed the call saying: “No fence and no wall is high enough to deter these people from coming to Europe.”
Last year, Ms von der Leyen renewed Juncker’s position after Lithuania called on the EU to fund a wall on its border with Belarus.
She said: “There will be no funding of barbed wire and walls.”
But EPP President Manfred Weber, the leader of largest group in the European Parliament, went against the Commission chief and supported Lithuania’s demands.
He said: “We, as EPP, we are also asking that in an extraordinary situation EU funds must be available to finance these kinds of activities.”
On the other hand, the Socialists & Democrats, the second-largest group in the Parliament, are staunchly opposed to the idea.
In October, 12 EU countries led by Lithuania urged the Commission to fund barriers “as a matter of priority” in a letter.
Greece, which supports a mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the bloc – opposed by Hungary – also signed the letter.
France, however, is opposed to the idea the EU should fund member states’ border policies.
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said at the time: “I am in favour of a Europe that protects its borders, but not a Europe that puts up barbed wire or walls.”