“We will weaken Russia”

EUrsula von der Leyen actually wanted to meet Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, on Thursday morning. That was postponed to the afternoon after both institutions had to go into crisis mode. They were not unprepared, the night before Washington had warned of an imminent attack. Charles Michel, the EU Council President, had already invited the 27 heads of state and government to a special meeting of the European Council on Thursday evening at 8 p.m. It should be about further steps towards Russia and support for Ukraine. Well, in the morning it was clear: the day had come to adopt the “massive and targeted” sanctions against Russia that had been prepared under von der Leyen’s leadership in the past few weeks.

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

“With this package we will target strategic sectors of the Russian economy by blocking their access to key technologies and markets,” announced the Commission President as she appeared in front of the cameras at half past eight. “We will weaken Russia’s economic base and its ability to modernize.” In addition, Russian assets in the EU will be frozen and Russian banks’ access to the European financial market will “end”. “These sanctions are designed to put a heavy burden on the interests of the Kremlin and its ability to finance the war,” von der Leyen said. An hour later, the EU ambassadors met to vote on the sanctions package.

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It turned out that the states – contrary to earlier assurances – were not yet in agreement about its scope. This concerned the so-called nuclear option, namely cutting off Russia from all international payments. This is considered the toughest sanction because Russian citizens, companies and the state would then no longer be able to carry out transactions in foreign exchange. However, Germany and other countries had insisted in internal consultations that payment channels should remain open. Otherwise, Russian debtors would no longer be able to service loans they took out in the West. In addition, energy supplies could no longer be paid for.

Penalties in key areas

The SWIFT payment system was not part of the package presented by the Commission in the morning and agreed with the United States. Instead, it targeted several large banks and state-owned companies, which are said to be cut off from European capital, including by banning trading in their shares. Several Eastern Europeans as well as the Netherlands pushed to include SWIFT. Germany and Italy, which would suffer the most, wanted to keep this option on the back burner but not yet use it.

So it was then decided by the heads of government in the evening, without any major debates. The other elements in the package are also likely to have painful consequences. As a result, Russia no longer gets spare parts and technology for its aircraft – which practically means that Airbus and Boeing aircraft will soon no longer be able to (safely) fly. In addition, the member states called on the European External Action Service to impose a regime of sanctions on oligarchs close to Putin. New punitive measures are also being prepared against Belarus.

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While these measures should take effect quickly, the planned export restrictions will only have an impact in the medium and long term. The EU, in close coordination with America, wants to impose an embargo on high technology in sectors where Europe and America are dominant. Russia’s position will be weakened in key areas from which the elite particularly benefit, said the Commission President, “from high-tech components to innovative software”. American government representatives recently named artificial intelligence, quantum computers, lasers and sensors, armaments and space travel as examples.

Help with caring for refugees

In the evening, some East-Central European states also pushed for Ukraine’s prospects of EU membership. After the presidents of Poland and Lithuania made a joint statement on Wednesday with their Ukrainian counterpart in favor of granting Ukraine candidate status, the heads of government of Poland and Slovenia sent a joint letter to Council President Michel. In it they called for an “ambitious and tangible plan for the rapid integration of Ukraine into the EU by 2030”. Its first phase should be the “immediate” recognition of Ukraine as a candidate for accession as soon as the country has submitted an application. Then one must define clear steps and timelines, combined with “a guarantee of membership in 2030, provided the necessary conditions are met,” wrote Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Janes Jansa.

However, this was not addressed in the conclusions. The European Council recognizes “the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine,” it says, as expressed in the 2016 Association Agreement. Diplomats pointed out that only countries that have resolved their “neighborhood conflicts” could join the EU anyway. That was what was agreed in 1999.

Michel and von der Leyen wanted to focus the evening’s debate on practical help. This applies to further financial support beyond the promised 1.2 billion euros in budget support and help with caring for refugees in Ukraine and in neighboring countries. “We have clear emergency plans for all member states to be able to accommodate refugees immediately,” said von der Leyen.

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