What’s on Joe Biden’s packed agenda in Brussels today?
Joe Biden has landed in Brussels to send Vladimir Putin the message that, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Western alliance is stronger than it has ever been since the end of the Cold War.
The US President has a packed agenda for his trip to the Belgian capital: his day will start in the morning with an emergency NATO summit to then be followed by a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) and conclude by joining his EU counterparts at the European Council building.
The extraordinary coincidence of the three high-level encounters responds to the deteriorating situation inside Ukraine, where the Russian advance has stalled but the death toll continues to mount and cities are shelled and bombed. The siege of Mariupol has drawn extreme condemnation from the international community, with a United Nations official describing it as “hellish” and “desperate.”
Biden himself has warned that Putin might be considering resorting to biological and chemical weapons to speed up the military campaign, a scenario that would open a dangerous and unpredictable chapter in the month-long war.
The EU is already working on a new “massive” set of sanctions if these weapons, which are banned under international law, are eventually used, a EU official said speaking on condition of anonymity.
Biden’s visit is meant to strengthen the US response on “three critical fronts,” according to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan: to equip Ukraine militarily, impose more costs on Russia and reinforce the Western alliance.
“We are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes,” Sullivan said during a press briefing.
The White House has put the bloc in a tight spot after introducing a total ban on imports of Russian fossil fuels, the Kremlin’s most profitable sector. Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement over a similar ban on oil products due to disagreements between member states.
It remains to be seen if Biden will bring up the sensitive subject, which has split member states in pro-energy ban, anti-ban and somewhat-in-between teams.
“It will be good for Biden to see those different views for himself,” said the EU official.
When Biden enters the European Council premises on Thursday afternoon, he will become the first US president to participate physically in an EU summit.
Fellow G7 leaders — Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau, UK’s PM Boris Johnson and Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida — have not received an invitation to join, despite also flying to Brussels to attend the G7 meeting.
China and Zelenskyy
A subject that Biden is certain to table is China’s role in the conflict.
China, a close partner with Russia but which has close economic ties with the US and the EU, has chosen a deliberately ambiguous position, calling for “maximum restraint” while condemning the hard-hitting Western sanctions. US officials have said Beijing might be willing to provide Moscow with financial and military assistance, a claim that China vehemently denied.
“This will be an opportunity — Thursday — for the United States and our European partners to coordinate closely on what our message is,” Sullivan said. “We believe we’re very much on the same page with our European partners, and we will be speaking with one voice on this issue.”
The bloc is set to hold a virtual EU-China summit on April 1 to address long-standing tensions between the two sides, such as trade frictions, human rights and an ongoing dispute with Lithuania. The encounter with Xi Jinping was scheduled before Putin launched the invasion, but the topic will be nevertheless high on the conversation.
Biden is expected to stay inside the European Council from 4:30 to 6 PM, although the timing can change given the day’s busy agenda. Due to time constraints, not all EU leaders will have a chance to intervene. The two sides are poised to unveil measures to reduce the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas, mostly though the increased purchase of liquified natural gas (LNG), a product of which the US is a leading exporter.
Once the commander-in-chief leaves the room — he is flying to Poland the following day — the 27 will continue to discuss the Ukraine war and take stock to the results achieved so far by the sanctions, looking into possible loopholes and ways to make the penalties more effective.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address leaders at around 7 PM via video call, but there will not be an exchange of views between the leaders.
On Friday, the EU summit will turn to electricity prices, which have been persistently high since the end of summer. The question has become a paramount threat to some governments, such as Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, who is leading the charge for reforms to the EU energy market.
His effort has attracted several supporters, including Greece, Portugal, Italy and even Belgium, but is yet to receive a majority backing. Member states have vastly different energy mixes, putting them on disparate starting points and complicating the road towards consensus, like it was painfully reflected in previous summits.
The Ukraine war, though, has given a new impetus to the calls for reforms. The European Commission has put forward several ambitious ideas, such as redistribution of windfall profits, mandatory storage levels, common purchases and a roadmap to slash Russian gas imports by two thirds before the end of the year.
But, “there is no single easy answer to tackle high electricity prices,” the Commission admits in its latest paper.
The discussion on Friday is set to be long and fraught among leaders, who are under enormous pressure at home to bring tangible solutions to a problem hurting households and companies across the continent.
Among the burning questions will be who foots the bill for the extra charges that are certain to be caused by proposed measures such as price caps on electricity, reduced taxation or additional income support.
After energy, the EU summit will focus on security and defence, the evolution of COVID-19 and the state of the economy. Conclusions are set to be published at the end of both days.
At one point on Thursday, European Council President Charles Michel is expected to be re-elected as his 2.5-years term approaches its end. Michel will have to win the approval of the 27 by qualified majority, which he is all but guaranteed.