European Union leaders have laid bare their differences over whether to stop buying oil and gas from Russia, following a show of transatlantic unity in a series of summits with Joe Biden and an impassioned appeal by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for more military aid to defend his country.
In the third summit on a hectic day of diplomacy that began with an emergency meeting of Nato leaders, followed by the G7, EU leaders met the US president to discuss Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“The single most important thing we had to do in the west is be united,” Biden said, arriving at the EU summit, the first time a US president has attended a European Council meeting. Biden said the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had been trying to break up Nato “from the beginning” and unity would be crucial in stopping him. “It’s the single most important thing to stop this guy, who in our country we believe has already committed war crimes,” he said.
The EU leaders were due to hear a video address from Zelenskiy, four weeks since the war broke out, when he told them in a conference call that they might not see him alive again.
The European Council meeting was heavy with symbolism, but officials dampened talk of further sanctions. Poland and the Baltic states were leading the charge for tougher measures against Russia, including a ban on Russian ships and road vehicles entering the EU. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said the EU needed to “crush” Russia with sanctions over the war, which he said had turned into a “massacre”. Referring to the Soviet Union, he said Russia was trying “to re-establish the ‘empire of evil’”.
Latvia’s prime minister, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, said energy sanctions were a “serious option” the EU should look at, starting with oil and coal.
“Energy sanctions immediately are a way to stop money flowing into Putin’s coffers,” he said. “Every day that we delay sanctioning Russia’s economy, Russia maintains the ability to feed its military machine.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the west was ready to impose further sanctions on Russia, which he said were having an impact.
Germany, which gets 55% of its gas imports from Russia, however, has warned that an immediate ban would cause unemployment and stop drivers filling their cars. To stop using Russian energy “from one day to the next would mean plunging our country and all of Europe into recession”, the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Wednesday.
He was supported by Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, who said an oil embargo “would have a devastating effect on the European economy and I don’t think it’s necessary”.
After four rounds of far-reaching EU sanctions in three weeks, targeting Putin, his inner circle and large parts of the Russian economy, there are growing tensions among EU leaders about the next steps.
Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, argued that further sanctions should be “a reaction to something”, referring to chemical and biological weapons, amid growing alarm that Putin will resort to them. “If we take sanctions now, more sanctions, with the situation that is still the status quo, what will be the next step?”
Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Janša, one of a trio of EU leaders who recently visited Kyiv, said Putin had already crossed red lines with the destruction of Mariupol. “All red lines have already been crossed, so we don’t need to speak about chemical and biological weapons, and to wait for those weapons to be used.”
Russia accounts for about 45% of EU gas imports, 25% of oil imports and 45% of coal, but some countries are far more dependent. The European Commission has said Europe could be completely free of Russian fossil fuels “well before 2030” and reduce its consumption of gas by two-thirds within a year.
EU leaders have so far eschewed setting a deadline to phase out Russian fossil fuels. However, they are poised to agree on voluntary joint purchasing of gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen, in an attempt to lever collective purchasing power “to dampen prices”, according to a draft summit communique.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said the US was going to supply the EU with additional LNG to replace Russian gas that comes via sea tankers – a move that she described as “an important step forward”. She is expected to make the announcement with Biden on Friday. The US is already the biggest supplier of LNG to the EU.
The EU and the US will also discuss how to dissuade China from lending its support to Putin, either by delivering arms or helping Russia evade western sanctions. Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, said China could be crucial in the peace process: “They have a lot of leverage and so we are all waiting that they use it.”
Boris Johnson was not invited to attend the EU summit. EU officials said there had never been any plans to invite the British prime minister and insisted this was not linked to his widely condemned remarks comparing the war in Ukraine to the Brexit vote. Von der Leyen tweeted from Nato HQ that she had had a “good meeting” with Johnson, where they discussed EU-UK cooperation on sanctions.