You could hardly miss it. Air Force One was parked in a corner of Zaventem airport outside Brussels on Thursday morning, reminding the arriving EU leaders that this was no ordinary summit, but an extraordinary meeting for extraordinary, dangerous, violent times.
Joe Biden brought the clout and trappings of the imperial presidency with him; just as you couldn’t miss the giant presidential jet at the airport, or the motorcade, or the helicopters overhead, or the army of Secret Service agents, so you couldn’t miss the fact that this meeting of EU leaders was concerned not with itself, but with the intensely fraught international situation. Normally the EU looks inward; not this time.
Actually, it wasn’t just the one summit that was taking place – but three. Nato leaders were also meeting at the alliance’s headquarters, about halfway between the airport and the summit building. At the same venue, leaders from the G7 group of advanced economies were also meeting to discuss the international response to the invasion.
The Nato and G7 summits at least gave Boris Johnson an excuse to come to Brussels. He had been agitating for an invitation to come to the European Council meeting, reports said, but none arrived. Pictures of an apparently friendless Boris, standing alone during the photocall while all around him swapped familiarities, bounced gleefully around EU circles. Johnson is indeed disliked by most EU leaders, though most realise that their differences with Russia – and the necessity for western unity – are rather more pressing matters than the legacy of Brexit.
But if Boris was happy to be in Brussels, Micheál Martin was positively overjoyed. The Taoiseach had spent a week longer than planned in Washington, after the positive Covid test that nixed his Oval Office visit on St Patrick’s Day. He bounded out of the official car at the VIP reception area. “I’m feeling very good, thank you very much,” the Taoiseach beamed. “I seem to have been lucky, to get a lighter dose of the strain, thankful for that.” And in he skipped. If it’s possible to love EU summits more than Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin does.
Varadkar was also in town for the minor match – the meeting of EPP leaders that takes place before the summit proper. The meeting is of little consequences in itself, but it’s a way to keep regular contacts going even when the party leaders are in opposition – waiting, like Varadkar, for their chance to lead their country and gather around the high table of EU leaders. Alas Varadkar, who sounded croaky during an encounter with the press on Thursday, tested positive for Covid on Friday. Luckily he had returned home before the positive test, or he would have been faced with a Micheál-type foreign confinement.
The massed ranks of the journalists returned to the vast atrium of the Lipsius building for the first time in over two years. Once-familiar faces greeted each other cautiously, unsure whether to fist-bump, shake hands or go for the full continental kiss on the cheeks. Mask wearing was still common; Covid is neither gone nor forgotten here. In the press bar, which fuels the media with strong coffee and soft croissants, they exchanged tales of how bad their brush with Covid had been. How was it for you?
Just after 7.30pm on Thursday evening, three hours late, Biden’s vast motorcade roared into the EU quarter, and soon afterwards, after enough men had spoken into their sleeves, he ambled down the red carpet past the assembled hordes of the press and was whisked several floors up to the chamber that houses the European Council.
Biden gave the leaders a “frank” briefing on the US analysis of the current situation, after which the leaders of several EU countries also spoke. The joint statement issued afterwards noted the EU and US had agreed on several points – reducing their reliance on Russian gas, providing further assistance to Ukraine, stepping up military co-operation between the EU and Nato. Biden was gone by 10pm, his enormous convoy stretching almost from the summit to the US ambassador’s residence, over a kilometre away.
Ukrainian president Voldymyr Zelenskiy then addressed EU leaders by videocall, thanking them for their assistance but also telling them that they were not doing enough.
According to a transcript of his remarks released by the Ukrainian foreign ministry in the small hours of Friday morning, Zelenskiy then listed all the countries of the EU thus: “Lithuania – for us. Latvia is for us. Estonia is for us. Poland is for us,” he said. “France, Emmanuel [Macron], I really believe that you will be for us. Slovenia is for us...”
On he went, listing them all. “Italy, thank you for your support! Spain, we’ll find common ground. Belgium, we will find arguments. Austria, together with Ukrainians, it is an opportunity for you. I’m sure of it. Ireland – well, almost.” [Another translation was “practically”.]
The apparently qualified appreciation of Ireland’s support seemed to come as a surprise to the Taoiseach when he was asked about it the following morning by The Irish Times on his way into the summit. “I wouldn’t overstate it, quite frankly,” he soothed.
For all the support that Zelenskiy enumerated, the fact is that the meetings in recent days did not offer him the no-fly zone that he desperately wants or anything that would be a game-changer in the desperate and uneven fight his country finds itself in. Nor was there a promise of a meaningful fast-track to EU membership.
There was much fine talk of western unity, and it is true that Biden’s presence was evidence that if Vladimir Putin’s strategy was to split the west, it has backfired spectacularly. The liberal democratic world is united, to be sure. But you’d wonder what use that is to Zelenskiy and his embattled people. And united against what? What does Putin do next? Despite three summits, and a whole lot of talking, nobody really knows.