Zohra stuffs packages of sliced bread, fresh fruit and canned vegetables into her shopping cart — free handouts she once never thought she would need.
Other Parisians patiently wait their turn for the Salvation Army’s weekly food distributions in the French capital: two women from Africa, a middle-aged man from the French Antilles, a young woman who looks like a student. Most are reluctant to talk. In a room nearby, volunteers prepare food packages for the charity’s swelling clientele.
“The prices for everything are rising — rent, electricity, gas telephone,” Zohra said, declining to give her last name. She lost her job at a medical clinic a few months ago. “People can’t live like this.”
Such sentiments are growing across the European Union that greets 2023 with an energy crisis and a war at the bloc’s doorstep for the first time in decades. If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked sometimes stunning displays of EU unity and power, analysts say, some question how long that will last as winter bites and the price for supporting Kyiv and European values mounts.
“It’s been transformative in so many ways — and in areas in which it’s difficult for the European Union to act quickly,” said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund and head of the policy institute’s Brussels office, of the Ukraine conflict. “In some of these areas, it acted very quickly — which surprised many people.”
This past year, the EU slapped eight rounds of sanctions against Moscow, earmarked billions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine and took in millions of Ukrainian refugees. The war in Ukraine led Europe to end its dependency on cheap Russian energy, pushing the bloc to seek new suppliers and power sources — and to stock up on its all-important gas reserves before the cold sets in.
Still, the conflict in Ukraine has delivered a blow to Europe’s economy and energy security, at least in the short term. It also slowed, as some countries revive coal mines, Brussels’ emissions-cutting goals. The International Monetary Fund and other experts believe the bloc will fall into recession this year. Despite government efforts to cushion the blow, prices and poverty are rising.
“What really shook us is we’re seeing a lot of young people — students who are having a hard time making it to the end of the month,” said Salvation Army spokesperson Samuel Coppens. “Also, single parents and older people with tiny pensions who can’t even afford heat. For them, food is a top priority.”
A recent IFOP poll found that more than half of the French surveyed feared their income wouldn’t cover their monthly expenses. One quarter believed they would need help from charities like the Salvation Army.
“I can go shopping with 50 euros ($53) and my shopping cart is still pretty empty,” said Valerie, a health care worker from Cameroon, who signed up for the Salvation Army’s food distributions a few weeks ago.
“From the start I didn’t like this war,” she added of the Ukraine conflict. “I thought there would be consequences here. Now, I see it is hitting the poorest.”
Even as Europeans send generators to power-crippled Ukraine after Russian strikes on its energy facilities, some are bracing for possible blackouts at home. Germans are squirreling away candles, Finns who own electric cars are asked not to heat them before climbing inside.
In France, normally an electricity exporter, half the country’s nuclear fleet is offline for repairs. Authorities have urged citizens and businesses to lower their thermostats, hoping energy savings will avert possible blackouts.
“My village raised funds for Ukrainians,” said Valerie, a tourist from southern France. “But if there are electricity cuts, it will be very difficult for French and Europeans. It will really impact our daily lives and our morale.”
“At the moment, solidarity is pretty strong” among European citizens, said John Springford, deputy director for the Center for European Reform think-tank. “But if the Ukraine war turns into a complete stalemate, things might get more difficult.”
French energy expert Thierry Bros is more pessimistic, describing a Russian energy war to defeat Ukraine and unravel European unity.
“The fact we are getting less energy, the fact we are getting less rich, that the economy is turning into a recession, could lead to Ukraine fatigue,” Bros added. “European citizens will look out for themselves first.”
Divisions are already showing in other areas.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with once-close ties to Russia, has suggested EU sanctions against Moscow should be scrapped, and temporarily blocked $19 billion in EU financial aid for Ukraine. The legislation ultimately passed last month.
Poland and Germany have sparred over the placement of a German Patriot missile air defense system, in what some reports suggest underscores larger differences.
EU divisions also exist over Russia’s threat and Europe’s future relationship with Moscow, analysts say. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent suggestion that the West should consider “security guarantees” for Russia drew sharp pushback from Poland and the Baltic states.
“There is a clear understanding the fight against Russia’s invasion is a fight for their own liberty,” said Sebastien Maillard, head of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, describing mindsets in European countries located near Russia. “It’s very obvious for Poland, the Baltic states and the Balkans. It’s not that obvious for the western part of Europe.”
Lesser, of the German Marshall Fund, believes Europe will face another test. To date, U.S. financial and military support for Ukraine has dwarfed the EU’s.
“When it comes to reconstruction in Ukraine, including things that could be done now to support Ukrainian society even before the war ends — I think there’s going to be a much stronger push from the American side for Europe to do more, and spend more,” Lesser said. “Because it can.”