European leaders must avoid splits that would only benefit Putin

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A huge blaze burning outside of St. Petersburg, big enough to be seen from Finland, captures Europe’s challenge as autumn approaches: Vladimir Putin burns gas as the continent prepares for a winter of discontent , triggered by record energy prices.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine has highlighted the need for more pan-European public goods and common action, especially for security and energy independence. It reinforces a realization that has already entered political consciousness through the pandemic and the climate crisis.

But the next six months will put the best intentions of leaders to severe political and economic tests. The need to do more together comes just when national politicians face the extreme temptation to look more inward. And governments must invest more money in the common good while their economies take a turn for the worse.

At home, high energy prices are plaguing every country, and the need to cushion the blow to voters and businesses will garner increasing political attention. It would be a mistake to let the cost of living crisis distract from aid to Ukraine, which is largely caused by Putin’s weaponizing of gas prices. But the temptation, and the pressure to put your country first, will only increase as the suffering of soaring energy bills deepens.

Then there are already existing points of friction that undermine the EU’s ability to act collectively. The erosion of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary remains unresolved. The European Commission refused to approve its recovery plans and launched its new tool to withhold other budgetary transfers to Budapest as well. Warsaw’s plan is approved, but any payout is conditional on further concessions to politicized judicial reform. The economic squeeze could bring both back on board, but it could also tempt them to play a bigger disruptive role.

Elsewhere, the political specters of the eurozone crisis have resurfaced. Suspicions about how Italy is spending its money from the recovery fund are not far below the surface. It’s a grumbling that Berlin hasn’t shed its miserliness when it comes to EU financial aid for Ukraine. And in Spain – once shaken by the crisis but now relatively well positioned with its large gas import capacities – politicians find it difficult not to reverse Germany’s old saying and accuse it of living beyond its (energetic) means.

Beyond politics, economic obstacles to political action are also growing. Protecting Europe from Putin’s energy manipulation requires investment to better interconnect the bloc’s energy infrastructure. But public and private finances will deteriorate.

Most growth indicators point in the wrong direction; Mere stagnation would be a happy ending. Even if Europe is spared an outright recession, Putin’s gas games are making it poorer through sharply deteriorated trading conditions. Ironically, Germany has run into a trade deficit due to expensive gas imports. Add to that monetary orthodoxy, which is telling the European Central Bank to reduce aggregate demand, dampen wage demands and rein in the eurozone’s (impressive) job growth.

This perfect storm makes for a winter of division, and with it, indecision. That is, of course, Putin’s goal. It must be the goal of all of Europe to avoid this.

It is a good start that EU leaders are aware of their predicament. As everyone faces energy crises at home, they understand the domestic pressures on their colleagues. Some are trying to prepare voters for what is to come. But it will take much political skill to get such a message across to those who have long felt left out by the abundance that there may have been.

Fascinating political reconfigurations are underway between EU countries. Hungary’s friendliness towards Russia has alienated it from Poland. This neutered the Visegrad group and merged with both Czechs and Slovaks, often in opposition to Western Europe. Countries on the EU’s northern flank are embarrassingly finding that they cannot be both defense hawks and fiscal hawks at the same time: if they want to invest more in Europe’s security, they must be open to more common spending or more lax restrictions on national budgets.

These are at most hints of a more coherent policy. To do this and thwart Putin’s plans, leaders must resist their instincts as purely national leaders. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s eagerly awaited speech in Prague on Monday is the best chance for strong leadership. To say that this is a defining moment for Europe’s future may be an exaggeration. But only a small one.

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