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EU envoy says unity prevails against Russia despite differences among 27 members

OTTAWA — The European Union remains staunchly united in the face of a possible Russian invasion despite concern that some countries in Europe may be waffling due to economic self-interest, says the Canadian envoy of the 27-country bloc.

OTTAWA — The European Union remains staunchly united in the face of a possible Russian invasion despite concern that some countries in Europe may be waffling due to economic self-interest, says the Canadian envoy of the 27-country bloc. 

Melita Gabrič, the EU ambassador to Canada, rejected reports that the EU is divided on its possible response to a Russian invasion because some of its countries are more economically dependent on Russia than others, especially for energy.

Gabrič said the EU is coming together to show true solidarity in the face of Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's borders, though she allowed that its 27 member countries often have vigorous discussions. She suggested that's not a lot different from political differences between provinces in Canada.

"On the contrary, what we've seen is a show of unity," Gabrič told The Canadian Press in an interview this week.

"It's only natural that there would be discussions. We are 27 member states and European Union institutions. I'm sure that your readers appreciate this point, as you know, you have a confederate system."

Russia has positioned 100,000 troops across Ukraine's borders along with tanks, sparking invasion fears across Europe and in the NATO military alliance, but Russia has denied it has a hostile intent.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and a host of others have repeated the mantra that Europe and its political and military allies need to speak with one voice in standing up to Russia in order to keep President Vladimir Putin from exploiting any perceived or real divisions.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly added her voice to that chorus on Wednesday when she reflected on her recent meetings in Brussels with EU and NATO leaders. "We're united and speaking with one voice in support of Ukraine and its people, and we're working in lockstep."

Nonetheless, the EU has always been an unwieldy collection of political, bureaucratic and business interests, and its 27 member states have often held competing and differing views towards the Kremlin.

One of the compounding factors is that about 40 per cent of Europe is dependent on natural gas from Russia that flows from pipelines, some of it through Ukraine. This makes many Europeans shudder at the memories of cold nights from the Kremlin cutting off supplies in the recent past to exert leverage.   

As a result, there are regular pronouncements of a divided Europe in media reports and various analyses.

One of the latest pronouncements came this week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, which blamed a host of factors for contributing to disunity on the content. It cited rising U.S. influence, Britain's exit and internal national politics, along with French President Emmanuel Macron's desire to get re-elected and internal squabbling within Germany's new governing coalition. 

"Overall, the EU has become ever more divided and less capable of speaking with one voice," wrote the council's research director Jeremy Shapiro.

Gabrič countered by pointing to Monday's meeting of the EU's foreign affairs council that she said emerged with a strong, united consensus that declared Russia would face severe consequences if it invades.

"They reiterated, in no uncertain terms, that they are willing to take such measures that will be massively consequential and will inflict severe costs on Russia in case it decides to go ahead with further aggression," she said.

Gabrič also said that EU countries are trying to find new sources of energy, so it is less dependent on Russian supplies.

"We've seen in the past that Russia uses its energy as a weapon," she said. "We are working on contingency plans."

Gabrič also rejected Russian claims that new sanctions from the West would have no effect, saying they would have massive economic consequences for the Kremlin.

Gabrič said Canada and the EU are co-ordinating closely on imposing fresh sanctions on Russia in the event it invades Ukraine.

"We have been co-ordinating our actions and co-ordinating what we are preparing in terms of deterrence. And we really see eye to eye. We appreciate Canada's role in support of European security."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press