Europe is faking solidarity and Putin knows it


The 27 national leaders of the European Union like to boast of the solidarity that unites their countries. Even words signal fate. “Union” comes via the French from the Latin unus for “one” and solidarity from solidus for “firm, whole and undivided”. Like a good marriage, the bloc wants to be a united union.

In reality, this is not the case and the enemies of Europe know it. This includes Russian President Vladimir Putin and autocrats in China and elsewhere. The EU’s biggest problem is its failure to see threats, responsibilities and sacrifices as shared.

Right now, the nail biting is on Putin – both his physical war on Ukraine and his hybrid war on the EU. His weapon of choice is energy. Putin spent two decades making the EU vulnerable – that is, dependent on Russian natural gas and other hydrocarbons – by building a network of pipelines to gullible countries like Germany. This year, after his invasion of Ukraine in February, he cocked those weapons and put his finger on the trigger.

Earlier this summer, it throttled gas flowing through Nord Stream 1, a large gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, to 60% capacity. This week, it further reduced that figure to 20%. He could turn it down further, or turn it off. As a result, European storage tanks will be emptier than they should be in winter. Putin is threatening to chill Europeans in unheated homes and force swaths of European industry to shut down.

As in each of its crises, the question for the EU is what to do about this mess. Thus, the most affected countries – Germany in the lead in this case – invoke this famous sense of solidarity.

Last week, the European Commission proposed that the entire bloc voluntarily reduce its gas consumption by 15%, with mandatory cuts to be followed if necessary. The reaction was inevitable, understandable and not very reassuring.

Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and several other Member States are not dependent on Russian gas and are therefore not really at risk. Moreover, any gas savings they impose on their own businesses and consumers would not help the Germans, because there are no pipelines to transport reserve gas from Madrid or Malta, for example, to the Bavaria or Berlin. So why should they say “yes” to forced rationing?

And besides, isn’t Germany responsible? Many Europeans have spent years warning Berlin against building two Baltic pipelines to Russia and phasing out nuclear energy at the same time. Germany smugly ignored its partners and ignored the threat emanating from the Kremlin. Germans asking Spaniards to take shorter showers now seem a bit rich.

And hypocritical. Ten years ago, during the euro crisis, the roles were reversed. The financial turmoil that had started in the United States caused massive sales of debt securities from member states such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, even threatening an unintended Grexit. But when these countries asked for solidarity from Germany and other northern countries, they instead received lectures on the evils of their profligacy for borrowing too much in the first place.

The EU was no more eager to show solidarity in 2015-2016, when more than a million refugees crossed from Turkey to Greece, itself still reeling from the crisis. of the euro. Some member states, including Germany, offered to help, but others, led by Poland and Hungary, hesitated.

Ditto in 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 appeared. Member states’ knee-jerk reaction has been to close their borders – even for masks and medical equipment – turning the EU’s vaunted “single market” into a travesty. The Europeans then almost fought for vaccines. Eventually, Brussels pulled itself together, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted that “we have glimpsed the abyss” – that is, a dismantling of the EU.

What if the invaders were Russian soldiers instead of viruses? Given the EU’s track record, frontline member states will be forgiven for finding it laughable to speak of a ‘European army’. Would the Dutch, Italians and Germans send their sons and daughters to die defending the Estonians, Latvians or Poles? Yes, is the answer. But that’s because they’re in NATO and supported by the US, not because they’re in the EU and very supportive.

The major world powers understand this weakness of the EU. Europe’s friends in Washington are worried about it; his enemies in Moscow and Beijing are trying to exploit him. To add to internal EU conflicts, Turkey and Belarus, for example, have tried to concoct new refugee crises.

European leaders are equally aware and therefore want to minimize vulnerability. Take German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. By praising the “unity” of Europe, he protests too much. Betraying how little he thinks about it, he immediately goes on to demand an end to national vetoes and “individual member states selfishly blocking European decisions”. He was thinking of Hungary at that time, but others think the same about Germany.

As usual, the EU27 settled their latest spat over gas savings this week in the usual way: they rigged and engineered a compromise. The gas will be saved – somewhere, somehow – but so many countries will have opt-outs, loopholes and exceptions that it would take a magnifying glass to find solidarity. Putin has seen nothing in Brussels this week to make him nervous.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Europe must declare a war economy: Andreas Kluth

Europe’s natural gas crisis is worse than it looks: Javier Blas

This energy crisis needs a ‘all it takes’ moment: Maria Tadeo

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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