BRUSSELS – Emmanuel Macron, President of France, has just finished a speech at a major conference on Europe.
As he lingered on stage, enjoying admiration and taking photos with fans, he knew little that two young women in the back of the room were watching him closely.
“There are no metal barriers,” Dominika Lasota whispered. “Now is our chance.”
She and her activist comrade, Viktoria Jedroszkowiak, got up quickly. They clicked on a camera. They have up to mr. Macron marched, greeting them with a charming smile, and apparently thinking all they wanted was a selfie.
But then they blew him with questions about a controversial new pipeline in Uganda (which helps build the French oil company Total) and the war in Ukraine.
“My point is…” said Mr. Macron tries to say.
“I know what your point is,” she said. Lasota, 20, said and cut him off. “But we live in a climate crisis, and you have to stop it.”
Ms Jedroszkowiak, also 20, then jumped in and said: “You can stop the war in Ukraine by stopping buying fossil fuels from Russia.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Macron mumbled, before expanding on a bunch of other questions.
Even weeks later – it unfolded in Strasbourg, France in May – the two activists are still dizzy about that confrontation. Me. Lasota and me. Jedroszkowiak emerged as leaders in a dynamic new wing of the anti-war movement, and the video of them showing Mr. Macron dosed, went viral, making them famous for a moment in France and in Poland, where they come from.
It is a different kind of activist – young, mostly female and mostly from Eastern Europe – who believes that the Ukraine war is a cruel manifestation of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. They joined two causes – anti-war activism and climate change – to take full advantage of this moment when the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine. And to put their case, they are confronting Europe’s leaders face to face.
They circulate on the continent, travel by train, stay in cheap hotels, float on cornflakes and almond milk, and try to put Europe’s top politicians and businessmen in jeopardy. While they may not be as well known as Greta Thunberg, they were cut from the same hardened cloth and work closely with her Fridays for Future movement.
Their message, which me. Thunberg and me. Lasota stressed in a recent video is that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is causing misery and bloodshed. They point not only to Russia but also to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other petro-states with long histories of conflict and oppression.
“These things are related,” she said. Thunberg said. “More and more expansion of fossil fuels means more power for autocrats. It enables them to start wars like the one in Ukraine. “
None of these activists were happy with the European Union’s recent moves to ban Russian coal and most Russian oil by the end of the year – they now want a total embargo on all Russian energy, which they say is Russia of billions. dollars will starve and shut down his war machine within eight weeks.
Europe’s move away from fossil fuels
The European Union has begun a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations may complicate the efforts.
This is a huge claim with far-reaching consequences that few European politicians dare to publicly embrace, let alone embrace. Many people worldwide believe it is simply not possible to just switch off from fossil fuels. Eighty percent of global energy still comes from them. And Europe is now linked to especially Russian fossil fuels, especially natural gas.
But more environmental groups are calling for the same comprehensive embargo. They are upset by Europe’s claim that it stands by Ukraine as it continues to buy billions of dollars worth of Russian fuel, helping the Russians reap record profits at the same time as their army kills civilians and commits other atrocities in Ukraine. Energy experts agree something else needs to be done.
“The activists are right that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a reminder of the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels,” said Jason Bordoff, dean of Columbia Climate School. “But the harsh reality is that if Europe wants to eliminate Russia’s dependence, it’s going to need some alternative sources of oil and gas for a period while it transitions.”
Me. Lasota and me. Jedroszkowiak says the only solution is to speed up the transition to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and until then, more Ukrainians will die unnecessarily. They organized demonstrations across Europe and not just Mr. Macron confronted, but also Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister; Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament; top business people, including Total shareholders; and Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, who seemed impressed.
“They are very smart young women, very knowledgeable,” she says. von der Leyen, what me. Lasota and other young activists met in March.
Since then, the European Union has held endless meetings on sanctions against Russia. At the end of May, European leaders scheduled another summit in Brussels. Me. Lasota and me. Jedroszkowiak saw this as the perfect opportunity to “capture attention”.
‘Wars do not just break out’
Born a month apart and from middle-class Polish families, Me. Lasota and Me. Jedroszkowiak met two years ago at an activist summer camp in Poland where they learned how to be peacefully arrested and form human blockades.
The two recently used those skills and joined a blockade outside Total’s headquarters in Paris. Now they have arrived in Brussels to organize a series of “actions” arranged at the EU summit.
They reported at a transit hotel near Brussels’ Midi train station. While me. Jedroszkowiak sat on the floor of their small room, wearing headphones, and presented a radio program for a new Polish outlet, Ms. Lasota sat at a desk and wrote an e-mail to Charles Michel, President of the European Council.
“She’s the cool one and I’m the serious one,” she said. Lasota laughed as she typed away.
“No,” Ms Jedroszkowiak corrected her. “We are both cool and serious.”
The next morning, at Greenpeace’s office in Brussels, more than a dozen other activists turned up, most in their early 20s, some in their teens. They gathered around a table full of cereal bowls, coffee mugs and glowing laptops.
Their mission: to hold a tumultuous anti-war event at Schuman Square, in front of the European Commission’s headquarters, on the eve of the big meeting.
“What do we need for the strike tomorrow?” asked Ms Jedroszkowiak.
“Sunflowers,” someone said. (Sunflowers have become a symbol of the Ukraine War.)
“Cardboard,” said another one pipe.
“Paint,” someone else said.
Many of the activists came from Moldova, the Czech Republic, Poland, even Ukraine. Eastern Europeans tend to have a deeper, more intuitive connection to Ukraine’s suffering than Western Europeans, she said. Lasota said.
“Honey, we come from such different contexts,” she explained. “I come from a country that has not existed for 200 years. Countries near us have just divided our nation and taken our resources and land. For us, the war in Ukraine is easy to understand and easy to feel. “
Ms Jedroszkowiak agrees. She said that some German environmental activists, for example, were more concerned about the embargo’s economic consequences than she would have expected.
“I was like, wait, are you serious?” she said. “Are you talking about the economy? And money? That is the language of lobbyists, not activists. “
Officials in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, said they could lose half a million jobs if they suddenly banned Russian gas, which drives many German industries.
Ms Jedroszkowiak’s response: “We can create green jobs. That’s the whole point. We have to change the whole system. “
Most of the young people who had gathered around the table were women, who me. Jedroszkowiak was also not accidental.
“‘What is this beautiful young girl doing in the Polish parliament?’ “I’ve heard it all my life. I heard it was me 14, and I still hear it when I’m almost 21,” she said. “And when you face that injustice, anger grows in you. “And you begin to see that all these iniquities come from the same place: rich men who do not want to admit that they are wrong.”
“And what collapse do we still need?” she asked. “As a Polish survivor of Auschwitz once said,” she added, referring to the famous historian Marian Turski, “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. Well, wars do not fall from the sky either.”
“People like to say wars ‘break out’,” she continued. “Wars” do not just break out. Wars are the result of a political system designed for war. “
‘Chaos on the table’
The next morning, the day of the big event at Schuman Square, Greenpeace’s front door kept knocking open. Young activists flew past each other and drove on sunflowers, signs and megaphones.
“I am very excited about all the chaos on the table,” said Pavel Rysula (17) from Prague. He was one of the few young male activists at the meetings.
With their iPhones and train tickets, they have built their own thriving community. Although many have discontinued their formal education, they read essays on social justice, do research on the latest climate science, and constantly write letters and papers (for world leaders, not teachers). They also have fun.
“We are shouting. We sing. We dance, ”said me. Lasota said. “There is nothing more energetic than this work. It is the closest thing to love I have ever received in life. ”
But, as with everything, there is a cost.
Both me. Lasota and me. Jedroszkowiak recently dropped out of university programs in Warsaw, emphasizing their families.
“My mother said she was afraid of me,” she said. Jedroszkowiak said. “I was like a mother, I’m not a drug addict or going to war. Do not be afraid. ”
Me. Lasota said many childhood friendships simply “disappeared.” One of her friends was so hurt about a birthday party they missed that they have not spoken since.
“It will be good in the end,” she said. Lasota said with a sigh.
A few hours before the action before the European Commission, the air opened up. People gathered in the parks of Brussels under the eaves of gazebos hit by the rain. As they walked through the streets, the protesters got soaking wet.
When they reached Schuman Square, they found it virtually empty. Yet they continued, aligning shoulder to shoulder, lifting their sunflowers and their signs.
“Even if it was raining, even if it was snowing today, even if there was a storm today, we would come here,” she said. Lasota bound, in the rhythms of a veteran speaker. “Because we will do everything in our power to get rid of this bloody embargo and stop the abomination that is happening in Ukraine and around the world.”
“Embargo! Embargo!” they sang.
The next day, EU leaders did not touch on the issue of Russian gas, but agreed to ban about 80 percent of Russian oil. The activists saw it as a mixed success.
“Disaster has been avoided,” she said. Lasota said. “But to celebrate it as a great achievement, it’s ridiculous.”