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Macron hosts EU leaders at Versailles for Ukraine summit

EU leaders will scramble at an informal summit near Paris to find ways to address the fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has hit the bloc's economy and exposed its defensive fragility.

Macron hosts EU leaders at Versailles for Ukraine summit
Ukrainian and EU and flags outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg. (Photo: Frederick Florin / AFP)

The meeting at Versailles 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 conflict has seen a swell of support in the EU for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and leaders were expected to 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.

Energy issue

But diplomats said the main topic in Versailles was to 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 hurt 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 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 agree to “phase out” the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal.

Defence sovereignty
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 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.

Member comments

  1. EU is already supplying weapons to the Ukrainian side and helping in humanitarian relief, short of starting a war with Russia, a war nobody can win I can’t see the EU doing much else to stop this war.

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STRIKES

French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

Protesters once again took to the streets in towns and cities across France on Tuesday to call for the government to scrap its proposed pension reform as fresh strikes brought widespread disruption on transport.

French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

The third day of union-backed demonstrations since January 19th was set to test momentum for the protest movement which has vowed to block Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age.

The head of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned that more “numerous, massive and rolling” strikes were coming if the government did not drop the plan.

“If the government keeps on refusing to listen then of course things will have to be ratcheted up,” he said, as the demonstration in Paris got underway.

French leftist party La France Insoumise (LFI) leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (C) addresses media ahead of the start of the demonstrations on the third day of nationwide rallies against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Macron put raising the retirement age and encouraging the French to work more at the heart of his re-election campaign last year, but polls estimate that two-thirds of people are against the changes.

Lawmakers began debating the reform, which would see the age for a full pension raised from 62 to 64 and the mandatory number of years of work extended for a full pension, during a stormy session in parliament on Monday.

Mobilisations across the country

But turnout was trending downwards on Tuesday with the hardline CGT union saying almost two million people protested nationwide compared with its estimate of 2.8 million last week.

It said 400,000 people were protesting in Paris compared with 500,000 on January 31st and 400,000 on January 19th.

The interior ministry said police counted 757,000 people protesting across France, also fewer than previously.

French 24-hour news channel BFMTV reported that more than 200 rallies against the pension reform had been organised across the country on Tuesday.

Protesters gather at Place de l’Opera prior to the start of the demonstration (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

The crowds so far have been the largest anti-government protests since 2010, during pension reform by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

There were tensions in the western city of Nantes where protesters clashed with security forces who used tear gas pellets, an AFP photographer said.

Protesters in Nantes in western France shrouded in teargas face off with law enforcement during a demonstration on the third day of nationwide rallies against pension reform (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

In Paris, French daily Le Parisien reported that within an hour of the march beginning, more than 2,200 people had already been subject to police checks.

Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron had to take account of the mobilisation on the streets.

“Unless he has become completely authoritarian, you need to be reasonable in a democracy,” he said, accusing Macron of trying to start his five-year term with a “show of force”.

The impacts of strike action 

Trains and the Paris metro again faced “severe disruptions”, while cancellations at Orly airport south of the capital were expected to total one in five.

The overall level of disruption, including in schools, was estimated to be lower than on the previous two days of action.

According to Franceinfo, 25 percent of French national rail workers walked out on Tuesday, in contrast to 36 percent during the previous day of action on January 31st. As for teachers, the French ministry of education estimated to Franceinfo that about 14.17 teachers were out on strike, compared to 25.92 percent on January 31st (based on parts of the country not currently on holiday). 

Nevertheless, around half of long-distance trains were running, the state railway company said.

Railway workers hold a banner as they protest against pension reform a general assembly of railway workers on the third day of nationwide rallies organised since the start of the year, against a deeply unpopul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Another day of action is planned by unions on Saturday although with train unions calling for protests rather than strikes, disruption may be less severe. 

“It’s ok, it’s manageable,” Sylvain Magnan, a 23-year-old told AFP at the main station in the city of Marseille on the Mediterranean. “I just took a later train.”

Two unions representing rail workers, the CGT and Sud-Rail had also threatened renewable strike action from mid-February onwards. 

“I don’t feel that the guys are ready to go on a renewable strike at the moment”, train driver and member of the CGT chapter representing rail workers, CGT-Cheminots, Thierry Milbeo, told Le Parisien, referencing his fellow rail workers.

As for oil refineries, approximately one in two TotalEnergies workers were out on strike during the third round of walkouts, the company said, but stocks at petrol stations are sufficiently high to handle any temporary pause in deliveries.

The situation in French parliament

Macron’s proposals would bring France closer into line with its European neighbours, most of which have retirement ages of 65 or higher.

But the government has struggled to defend the overhaul as necessary or fair, given that the system is currently in balance and that low-skilled workers are said by many economists to bear the brunt of the changes.

“It’s reform or bankruptcy,” Public Accounts Minister Gabriel Attal said in parliament on Monday, leading to criticism from opponents that he was exaggerating.

French Junior Minister for Public Accounts Gabriel Attal delivers a speech during the debate regarding the draft law on pension system reform at the National Assembly in Paris, on February 6, 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Forecasts from the independent Pensions Advisory Council show the pensions system in deficit on average over the next 25 years.

The changes would lead to annual savings of around €18 billion by 2030 — mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

France’s spending on pensions is the third highest among industrialised countries relative to the size of its economy. The country is number one in terms of overall public spending, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In parliament, the government will need to rely on the right-wing Republicans opposition party to pass the draft legislation, without having to resort to controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a vote.

Macron’s allies are in a minority in the hung National Assembly after elections in June.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday offered a key concession, saying people who started work aged 20 or 21 would be allowed to leave work a year earlier.

Republicans’ head Eric Ciotti has promised his backing, in theory giving the government the numbers it needs to pass the legislation.

But the left-wing opposition group and the far-right nationalist and Eurosceptic party of Marine Le Pen are staunchly opposed and have filed thousands of amendments.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Le Pen said the government’s reform was “unfair” and “dictated by your desire to please the European Commission.”

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