NEW YORK — Russia is at war not only with Ukraine, but with the whole EU — and it’s losing, according to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “using energy as a war tool” because he is threatened by the EU’s values, Sánchez told POLITICO in New York, where more than 150 heads of state and government are gathering for the United Nations General Assembly.
But while Putin has succeeded in driving up the price of energy in Europe — forcing massive market interventions to reduce financial pain on households and companies, Sánchez insisted Moscow is actually pushing the EU closer together.
In Sánchez’s view, the bloc is learning from successive crises that have plagued the Continent since 2008, with the Spanish PM citing agreements between EU governments to pool debt, coordinate defense investments and wean themselves off Russian energy as the most recent examples of the trend.
Europe’s energy system is now “a market that doesn’t function,” Sánchez said, requiring creative new policies that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. “Learning from the pandemic model, why don’t we centralize gas purchases, as we did with the vaccines?” the PM asked.
Europe’s political leaders now face significant tension between their expensive promises to shift to green energy, and the need to keep the lights and heating on as winter approaches. “Don’t use this energy crisis to block moving forward on the climate crisis,” Sánchez urged his fellow leaders on the eve of the General Assembly.
In a separate interview, Werner Hoyer, the president of the European Investment Bank, told POLITICO that “political leaders in Europe are in a very, very, very difficult situation.” Hoyer noted that leaders face difficult demands from their domestic voters, but said they cannot afford to reduce investment in green energy, even in the face of a recession.
“We are going to see a reduction in standard of living. And that, for a politician is not easy to swallow and to explain to his or her people,” Hoyer warned.
Sánchez, a social democrat, said he is aware of the populist threat he faces, including from the far-right Vox party in Spain, as soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis leads to simmering discontent in countries around the EU.
He called on Europe’s centrist-right parties to reexamine their relationships with parties on that end of the spectrum, as hard-right parties including the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy are on the cusp of unprecedented power in countries around the bloc. The question Sánchez said his rivals need to answer: “What do they expect from the far right?”
After watching Russia defy key aspects of the international order and the U.N. Charter itself via its invasion of Ukraine, the Spanish prime minister reiterated calls for a U.N. shake-up. “The situation created by Russia in Ukraine is major proof that we need strong reform of the U.N. system,” he said.
Sánchez is also a major force behind a U.N. food security summit taking place Tuesday in New York, and said he will be telling the assembled leaders “we have to respond multilaterally to this food crisis,” while avoiding duplication of programs.
At a minimum, Sánchez said that includes supporting U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ efforts to broker grain export deals between Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.
The EU is set to announce plans to spend €600 million on combating the food crisis. And national governments need to be prepared to fund more, including via changes to their food systems at home, Sánchez said.
Sánchez also weighed in on the sensitive issue of Catalan independence.
Confronted with examples of leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement touting to New York audiences their distrust of Sánchez’s government this week, Sánchez urged Catalans to “be patient” when it comes to the dialogue between Barcelona and Madrid.
Rather than bowing to Catalan independence activists’ demands for succession at a time when the population is deeply divided on the topic, Sánchez said: “We need to find alternatives, different solutions to solve this crisis,” adding that this would “take more than a year or two.”
In a separate interview with POLITICO on the UNGA sidelines, Catalonia’s pro-independence President Pere Aragonès said: “The talks will take time. It’s not an issue that will be solved in two or three months, we know that.”
Emma Anderson contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network