|The first shipment of grain out of a Ukrainian port since the invasion raises hopes of an end to a Russian blockade that has inflated global food prices and threatens to cause hunger in some countries. The big if, is whether Putin can be relied on not to renege again.
Russia’s weaponisation of energy is ongoing, with unsavoury geopolitical reverberations. The latest beneficiary is a figure who, until recently, was regarded as a pariah but suddenly finds the red carpet rolled out for him in European capitals.
Saudi Arabia’s ruler Mohammed bin Salman was ostracised after the shocking death of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Khashoggi was tortured and strangled by a Saudi hit squad, his body dismembered by bone saw at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is known, approved the outrage, the CIA concluded.
But this despot is now being courted as Europe needs alternatives to Russian energy. The Guardian’s Athens correspondent Helena Smith had some of the distasteful detail of the Greek leg of his tour: a 700-strong entourage arriving on seven planes carrying 180 suitcases, MBS requesting 350 limousines, so many that they had to be freighted in from neighbouring countries; exclusive access to the Acropolis … In Paris, warm smiles and a lengthy handshake for the cameras preceded dinner with President Macron at the Élysée.
The moral flexibility western leaders are showing – Joe Biden fist-bumped the reviled prince during a visit to Jeddah last month – is a measure of the fear of rocketing oil prices and Russian gas supplies being switched off in retaliation for support for Ukraine. European leaders know that no amount of belt-tightening – cold showers in German municipal swimming pools or air-conditioning limits in Spain – will be enough if Putin goes for broke. To weaken the Kremlin’s grip, the west needs Opec, dominated by Saudi Arabia, to pump up oil production and keep prices stable.
But rights groups ask if such blatant double standards will come back to haunt Europe. Macron in particular is accused of “rehabilitating” Bin Salman, unless guarantees on human rights were extracted prior to the Élysée visit, which seems unlikely.
The contradictions of maintaining Saudi Arabia as a strategic western ally are nothing new, and Europe is clearly between a rock and a hard place. But at what point do the EU’s “values” when it comes to Ukraine begin to look meaningless?
Car-free futures are increasingly seen as part of the response to the converging energy and climate crises. Germany’s €9 monthly transport ticket is the success story of the summer. Luxembourg has an even more radical green transport experiment: it has abolished fares completely. Spain is making some commuter routes free from next month and Ireland has reduced fares across its network. A three-hour train ride across the island however showed Rory Carroll why getting people to part with their wheels remains an uphill journey.
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Thanks for reading and until next time,
Associate editor, Europe
3 August 2022