Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, thinks that a total cut-off of Gazprom shipments to the EU-27 is ‘probable.’ To counter this, Brussels has come up with a plan based on voluntary action, asking each of its member countries to curb their consumption. Virginie Malingre discusses the announcement in an article on the Le Monde website.
The Commission is facing resistance from governments, casting doubt on whether they will approve the emergency plan next week.
Brussels wants to reduce EU energy consumption by 15% to break its dependence on Russian gas
Since his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been waging another battle, the battle of energy – which is being waged on the European Union’s territory. With no ammunition or military deployment, it is threatening the continent’s economic health and the unity of the 27 member countries and could have explosive effects on the sacrosanct internal market, which is at the heart of the European community.
“Russia is using gas as a weapon,” reiterated European Commission President von der Leyen on Wednesday, July 20, as she presented her plan for Europeans to prepare for a winter without Russian gas. The European Commissioner in Charge of Internal Market Thierry Breton mentioned “a hybrid threat from Russia.”
Gazprom’s shipments to Europe are now less than 30% of what they had been before the war. Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark have already been completely cut off, while France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have seen their supplies greatly reduced.
On Thursday, July 21, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline restarted after a maintenance operation, but with reduced capacity. On July 18, the company had mentioned a “force majeure” as an excuse to avoid responsibility for the massive decreases – past and perhaps future – in its shipments to Europe.
Filling up the tanks as much as possible
The “worst case scenario” of a “total cut-off of Russian gas” is “probable,” said Ms. von der Leyen, who refused to bow to the Kremlin’s “blackmail.”
“Nord Stream 2 has not received the [necessary] certifications and is not operational at all,” she warned on Wednesday, while Berlin, after having procrastinated for a long time, has finally given up on commissioning the new gas pipeline – although Moscow could conceivably force Germany to change its mind.
Mr. Breton said that the EU-27 must “prepare” for one, or even two, “winter[s] without Russian gas” – which last year accounted for 40% of their imports. To do this, they will have to fill up their gas reserves as much as possible, and raise them from 64% today (i.e. 46 days of supply in winter) to 80% by November 1. Otherwise, a cut from Gazprom could drive them into recession, further increasing inflation and unemployment.
In recent weeks, Europe – Berlin and Rome in particular – has been scouting for new suppliers the world over, including in the United States, Norway, Azerbaijan, Algeria and Qatar. Other purchases are underway. But the EU-27 know that it will be difficult to do much more, given the resources available and the infrastructure needed (for liquefied natural gas, for example, LNG terminals are needed to regasify it).
The EC is therefore proposing that each state reduce their gas consumption by 15% between August 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023, compared with their average consumption in those same months between 2016 and 2021. This, it claims, will allow them to face the winter without Russian gas – if it is not too cold.
The EU executive has identified measures that can help member states achieve this objective and is awaiting their roadmap by the end of September. The measures include cutting down on heating and air-conditioning in buildings, use of alternative energy sources – coal or nuclear – for power plants, increased use of renewables, downsizing the least essential industries, with the implementation of incentive mechanisms for them, etc. It has also adjusted its state aid scheme to encourage all possible substitutions.
Initially, the 15% decrease in gas consumption would be voluntary. But if the winter is harsher than expected, if alternative gas supplies are not up to expectations, or if the 27 member states don’t make the necessary efforts, then the European Commission could impose this objective on them.
In the project it presented on Wednesday, the EU executive is not planning to impose sanctions on countries that do not comply with this obligation. But it does establish a solidarity mechanism between the 27 member states (in case one of them runs out of gas) that the Commission could refuse to activate for a member state that didn’t make the adjustments that were requested.
“Clearly, there is no solidarity for the lazy,” summarized one senior official.
There will be heated debate
This is exactly what Berlin was saying when the eurozone was threatening to implode under the weight of the debt crisis in 2011-2012. At the time, Germany was calling the Mediterraneans “lazy” and criticized them for mismanaging their public finances. Today, the tables have turned on Berlin, which has relied for decades on Russia for its energy. Portugal and Spain are much less dependent on Russian gas. As for Italy and in particular some Eastern countries, which since the beginning of the war have made great efforts to avoid owing Moscow anything, they do not necessarily want the efforts they’re making to benefit Germany either. “The solidarity mechanism must not undermine the energy security of another member state,” warned Polish Climate Minister Anna Moskwa on July 14.
In the same vein, some of these countries think that the savings requested should not be the same, in terms of percentage, for all states. Clearly, they argue, Berlin should do more than Madrid, Lisbon or Warsaw.
“We will oppose the imposition of obligations that are over and above what corresponds to us, in terms of effort,” said Spain’s Minister for the Environmental Transition Teresa Ribera on Wednesday, before adding: “Spanish families will not face cuts in gas or electricity in their homes” and “Spain will defend the position of Spanish industry.”
The Commission has tried to defuse these criticisms, arguing that it “takes into account the efforts made by member states since February 24.” Some countries, it continued, such as Finland or the Netherlands, have already reached the 15% target. But in reality, the key issue is something different: “If we oblige Germany to make an effort equal to its dependence on Russian gas, we are going to plunge the entire EU into recession” due to the interplay of industrial value chains, explained one diplomat.
In any case, there is likely to be heated debate among the 27 member states, which will examine the Commission’s text on July 26 at a council of energy ministers. The EU needs a qualified majority to adopt this draft regulation, and so must be more united in challenging the power that the EU executive has given itself. By imposing a binding target for a reduction in gas consumption and by putting itself in a position to manage the solidarity mechanism, the European Commission is in effect encroaching on their national sovereignty on energy matters.