New Year’s Eve, 2022 EU annus horribilis

From the war in Ukraine to Qatargate: all the problems in the heart of Europe

2022 will be remembered in the annals of the EU as annus horribilis. Started with the eruption of the Ukrainian conflict and ended with the shock of the ‘Qatargate’ scandal in the European Parliament. If the former has put the Union to a severe test in its ability to respond to the Russian threat – which it has all in all overcome by demonstrating a certain unity -, the latter has opened a Pandora’s box which risks damaging the reputation of the Community institutions. Starting from an investigation by the Belgian secret services last summer, the scandal erupted on 9 December when, following a series of searches which led to the discovery of more than 1.5 million euros in cash, the S&D MEP Eva Kaili, vice president of the European Parliament, former Italian MEP Antonio Panzeri, who moved from Pd to Article One, Kaili’s partner and former Panzeri assistant, Francesco Giorgi, and Niccolò Figà Talamanca, secretary of the NGO ‘No Peace Without Justice’. They are accused of corruption for having received sums of money and benefits from Qatar to influence decisions and debate within the European Parliament, with the aim of cleaning up the image of the Gulf country which hosted the soccer World Cup. According to the investigators, the NGO founded by Panzeri, Fight Impunity, played a central role in the affaire, but the investigations also extended to influences from Morocco and the names of other personalities of the European Parliament and others also emerged, shaking the political buildings of Brussels.

The year for the EU had started celebrating 20 years of the euro and with the election of Maltese EPP member Roberta Metsola as president of the European Parliament. On the morning of February 24, Europe woke up to the greatest aggression since the Second World War on its continent. The Russian invasion of one of its Eastern Partnership countries marked a watershed in European history and opened a new unprecedented crisis in the Old Continent, just as it was trying to recover from the pandemic. On the same day, an extraordinary European Council was urgently convened in which EU leaders condemned Russian aggression and agreed on a new package of sanctions, the second after the one approved the day before, when Moscow’s army was already massing its forces troops on the Ukrainian borders. Seven more will follow, all approved unanimously, as per the Treaties, not without lengthy negotiations and many exceptions to bring on board the most reluctant countries exposed to energy dependence, Russians like Hungary. Countless extraordinary councils convened by the French and Czech presidencies to respond to the emergency.

The war immediately confronted Europe with the greatest challenge: how to strike Moscow without risking losing the flow of Russian gas and oil vital to the entire continent. Although gas has always been excluded from the sanctions packages, efforts have been made to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels from 40% to less than 9%. In May, the European Commission launched its plan to increase Europe’s energy autonomy, the RePowerEu, with the possibility of adding chapters to national recovery and resilience plans for investments in the sector, an acceleration transition to renewables, with a strategy for solar energy, and an expansion of the energy efficiency and savings objectives envisaged by the Green deal. But also a mandatory reduction in electricity consumption of 5% during peak hours and 15% of gas in the event of a shortage of supplies and the obligation to fill storage at 90%. Meanwhile, Brussels has signed new agreements with the US, Norway, Egypt, Israel and Azerbaijan to increase supplies of liquefied natural gas. At the end of the year, among the measures to deal with high energy prices, joint gas purchases, solidarity mechanisms between European countries, the creation of a complementary index to the Amsterdam market and the price cap, supported by the Italy, at 180 euros per megawatt hour. To help Kiev, the EU has allocated 6 billion in subsidized loans guaranteed by the member states for 2022 and another 18 for 2023. For the first time in the history of the Union, the endowment of the European Peace Instrument was also used, usually intended for EU missions around the world, to reimburse states for sending arms to Ukraine: more than 3 billion, out of 5.7 of the fund, have been used for this purpose. Still on the military front, the EU has inaugurated a training mission for 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Faced with the massive arrival of Ukrainians fleeing the bombs, the directive on temporary protection of 2001 was applied for the first time, to guarantee the reception of a flow that reached 7 million people in the peak months, of over 2 of which in Poland.

The Ukrainian crisis has also revitalized and accelerated the enlargement process in the Balkans, on which Europe is betting to prevent the region from ending up in the net of Russian sirens. In June, the EU summit accepted the Commission’s proposal to grant candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova, while Georgia will still need some time. In July, the dispute with Bulgaria was resolved, which unblocked the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In December it was the turn of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took the first step by obtaining candidate status, bringing the number of EU candidate countries to eight, and Kosovo made its request, although in this case the road is still long.

The war also had repercussions on the economic front leading to extension of the suspension of the Stability Pact for debt relief for another year, at the same time launching the debate on the European Commission’s proposal to reform the rules of economic governance in a more flexible way, in view of the return to normality in 2024. Despite the conflict, the age-old question of the rule of law has scored two points with as many difficult decisions by the European Commission. The EU Executive has given the green light to the last two recovery and resilience plans, the Polish and the Hungarian one, however tying the disbursement of the money to the implementation of reforms to guarantee the rule of law, in particular in the independence of justice and in the control of public funds. If with Warsaw the tone has subsided, also due to the substantial contribution of Poland to the Ukrainian crisis, with the Orban government the clash has remained open. Hungary has used its veto power several times to block important dossiers, in the end it gave the go-ahead for the minimum taxation on multinationals, decided by the OECD/G20, obtaining the go-ahead for its Pnrr, but seeing the blockade confirmed 55% of some cohesion fund programmes, amounting to 6.3 billion. It is the so-called rule of law conditionality mechanism applied for the first time in the Union. In the last part of 2022, the debate was opened on the need to establish another common debt instrument such as the Recovery – from which Italy has already received 67 billion – or the Sure Fund and to loosen the rules on state aid, also to deal with the US investment plan, the Inflation Reduction Act, a potential danger for European competition. At the end of the year, just as the latest measures were being approved in Brussels, the European Parliament was overwhelmed by the Qatargate scandal. To avoid a crisis of credibility, the European Parliament and the European Commission immediately moved to introduce reforms on transparency and lobbying activities.

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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