Of EU institutional progress through sanctions and the Kalush Orchestra winning Eurovision

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

When stock was taken of the EU response to the pandemic crisis, positive assessments prevailed – to the point that many analysts concluded that this was a case of “Europe growing through crises”. It is too early to take stock of the EU reaction to the energy shock sustained by the economy of its Member States on the wake of the Ukraine war and the geopolitical shifts underway. But the initial quasi-enthusiasm over efforts to present a joint response to a visible threat to both the production model and the social fabric of European countries – because this is what energy shortages and sky-rocketing prices would bring about – pales by the day.

Let’s be fair: even the “coronavirus saga” of the EU that ended with the Next Generation EU programme to face the risk of seeing European economies diverging further under this shock had started on a wrong foot. Initial European responses to the pandemic were quite self-centered: one should not/cannot forget export restrictions introduced for essential health-related goods when the Covid-19 outbreak became a front-page matter (from respirators to face-masks…). Even the effort to jointly procure Covid vaccines had its bad days – not to forget the AstraZeneca/EU Commission debacle.  The much-vaunted debt mutualisation to fund the NGEU that can be considered the main institutional take-away for the EU took months of cliffhanger negotiations to succeed. But… it did succeed, after all.

The way in which the EU – or, at least, the European Commission – tries to build now further institutional progress from the dramatic conditions of the Ukraine crisis may well backfire. Over-eagerness to translate the legal intricacies of what amounts to US-mandated sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas has faced the economic (and political) realities of differing levels of energy dependence in European countries. The much-expected legal guidance of the Commission Legal Service over the degree of incompatibility of the jointly decided sanctions regime with the payment procedures of natural gas in Putin-mandated/Gazprom-run ways has been underwhelming. None less than Italian PM Mario Draghi, of “whatever it takes”/ECB memory, candidly admitted that several energy companies throughout the EU were actually adhering to the Russian demands – in practice. To add insult to injury, the latest EU package of sanctions build around an oil ban (“a complete ban on all import of Russian crude and refined fuels”) might well be put aside. “For a while”, not to ruffle feathers. But under the present conditions of the Ukraine conflict, such dilatory practices – made necessary by the stance of Hungary, discreetly supported by a handful of more bashful EU countries – undercut the very political function of sanctions.

Which leaves to Commission Ursula von der Leyen the less-than-institutional role of congratulating Ukraine and its folk-rap Kalush Orchestra on winning the Eurovision 2022 Song Contest…