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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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POLITICS

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

The last soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane operation in Mali have now left the African country, the French chiefs of staff said on Monday.

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

French forces have been supporting Mali against insurgents for nearly a decade, but President Emmanuel Macron decided to pull out after France and the Malian junta fell out in the wake of a military takeover.

“Today at 13H00 Paris time (1100 GMT) the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the statement said.

The army had met the “major military logistics challenge” of the pull-out “in an orderly and safe fashion”, it added.

After ties ruptured between Paris and the junta that took power in Mali in August 2020, France began to withdraw its troops in February, as jihadist violence surged in the Sahel.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Why were French soldiers in Mali?

Friction developed over the junta’s delays in restoring civilian rule and escalated when Mali brought in Russian paramilitaries — personnel described by France as “mercenaries” from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.

‘Prevented caliphate’

Macron on Monday congratulated the military on its nine years in Mali, saying it had “prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate, and fought against terrorists that attack local populations and threaten Europe”. 

Most high-ranking members of the “terrorist groups” had been “neutralised”, he said, adding that 59 French soldiers had died in Mali in total.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally based on the findings of non-governmental organisation ACLED.

In this file photo taken on December 07, 2021 shows the French flag and France-led special operations logo for the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

BACKGROUND: France announces withdrawal of troops from Mali

At its peak, France’s Barkhane mission had 5,100 troops among five Sahel allies, all former French colonies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The forces have provided key support in air power, troop transport and reconnaissance. France has an air base in Niger’s capital Niamey where it has deployed drones.

After the Malian pullout, the mission will have “around 2,500” troops, Barkhane commander General Laurent Michon said last month.

The reconfigured mission will emphasise “more cooperative operations,” he said.

Frontline Niger

France will keep more than 1,000 men in Niger, where a tactical group will continue to work in partnership with the Nigerien forces.

Niger is a frontline state in the fight against jihadism as the unstable region struggles with a string of military coups.

“The democratic regression in West Africa is extremely worrying,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French MPs ahead of a trip to the region in July. 

“However, in spite of these events (and) the withdrawal from Mali, France will continue to help West African armies fight terrorist groups.”

Niger is one of the biggest recipients of French aid, receiving 143 million euros ($146 million) last year.

READ ALSO: France calls Mali’s exit from defence accords ‘unjustified’

The two sides will sign agreements for a French loan of 50 million euros and a grant of 20 million euros.

Niger, the world’s poorest country by the benchmark of the UN’s Human Development Index, has been badly hit by the jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then swept to neighbouring countries.

Niger is facing insurgencies both on its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso and on its south-eastern frontier with Nigeria.

More than a thousand troops will be deployed in Niger, providing air support and training, according to French sources.

French troops are also in Gabon, Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as in the east of Africa, in Djibouti.

READ ALSO: Macron agrees to return Benin sculptures ‘without delay’

Macron in June asked the government and military chiefs “to rethink our overall presence on the African continent by the autumn.”

He called for “a presence that is less static and less exposed” and “a closer relationship” with African armed forces.

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