Ukraine crisis to dominate EU leaders' Versailles summit
Credits: THIBAULT CAMUS /POOL/AFP

Ukraine crisis to dominate EU leaders' Versailles summit

EU leaders will scramble Thursday to find ways to urgently address the fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has imperilled the bloc's economy and exposed a dire need for a stronger defence.

The meeting at the Versailles palace was set to be the high point of France's six-month EU presidency, but President Emmanuel Macron will instead spearhead a crisis summit to answer Russian leader Vladimir Putin's brutal disruption to decades of stability in Europe.

"Russia's war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history," a draft of the two-day meeting's final declaration said.

The leaders will grasp "how the EU can live up to its responsibilities in this new reality, protecting our citizens, values, democracies, and our European model".

The 27 heads of state and government meet as fighting raged for a 15th day in Ukraine, with more than two million refugees escaping mainly to Poland but also to countries across Europe.

The heart-wrenching conflict has seen a swell of support in the EU for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and leaders were expected to seriously consider the leader's plea to swiftly join the EU and escape the clutches of Russia.

"Our first priority is to send a political message to Ukraine that it belongs to the European family," an official from the French presidency said.

- 'Biggest issue' -

But diplomats said the main topic in Versailles was to urgently explore ways to shore up Europe's self-reliance in a starkly more dangerous world, especially on energy.

"I think energy is the biggest issue on leaders' minds right now," said a source with close knowledge of the summit preparations.

The energy price shock caused by the Ukraine invasion has endangered an EU economy emerging from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and fuelled heated discussions on how to protect consumers.

Western allies have unfurled waves of anti-Russia sanctions whose knock-on effects have exposed Europe's dangerous dependency on Moscow for gas and oil, a reality the meeting will seek ways to address.

Europe's dependency on Russian energy even caused the first crack in the West's unified response to Putin's aggression, with the EU this week shying away from a ban on Russian oil imports implemented by the United States and Britain.

The EU imports about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia with Germany, Europe's biggest economy, especially dependent on the energy flow, along with Italy and several central European countries.

About a quarter of the EU's oil imports also come from Russia.

According to the meeting's final declaration, the 27 leaders will cautiously agree to "phase out" the bloc's dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal.

- 'Resolutely invest' -

The EU leaders will also try to advance on ways Europe can build its sovereignty in highly sensitive sectors, including semiconductors, food production and most notably defence.

Collective security in the European Union is primarily handled by the US-led NATO alliance, but France, the EU's biggest military power, would like the bloc to play a bigger role.

Since Russia's belligerence against its pro-EU neighbour, bloc members have approved a total of half a billion euros in defence aid to Ukraine.

Berlin dramatically broke with long-standing doctrine when it announced it will plough 100 billion euros into national defence.

In view of the challenges, "we must resolutely invest more and better in defence capabilities and innovative technologies", the leaders were expected to say.

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