EU solidarity frays as some member states question plan to slash gas use

Spain and Portugal among those pushing back on proposal to cut consumption by 15% ahead of winter supply crunch

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said EU states needed to show solidarity over threats to winter gas supplies by cutting demand for natural gas by 15 per cent over the coming months. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

A proposal for European countries to slash gas use ahead of a possible winter supply crunch has prompted bickering among EU capitals and doubt over its approval at a meeting of energy ministers next week.

The European Commission’s “Save gas for a safe winter” plan, which recommended on Wednesday that all member states cut gas use by 15 per cent between August and March against an average of the previous five years has been met by outright opposition from Portugal and Spain and serious concerns from several other EU countries.

“We cannot assume a disproportionate sacrifice on which we were not even asked for a prior opinion,” said Portugal’s energy secretary João Galamba said.

Spanish energy minister Teresa Ribera added a veiled jibe at Germany, which relies on Russian supplies for more than half its gas consumption: “Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view.”

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German energy minister Robert Habeck retorted on Thursday: “The principle applies. We in Europe must save gas and that means even those countries that aren’t directly affected by the cut in gas supplies from Russia should help other countries. Otherwise, there is no European solidarity.”

Brussels has been under pressure to find ways to counter serious economic shocks across the bloc should Moscow further weaponise energy supplies. But, as winter looms, the request for member states to cut gas use by 15 per cent marks an early test of the EU’s united front in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view.”

—  Spanish energy minister Teresa Ribera

Hungary last week declared an energy emergency and banned exports to other EU states. The Századvég institute, a think-tank with ties to Budapest’s ruling Fidesz party, said on Thursday that the latest proposal from Brussels breached fundamental EU rights. The same day, the country’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjártó, met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow to request additional gas supplies.

The proposal is for a voluntary gas reduction but the commission said it could be there was “a substantial risk” of a “significant deterioration” in gas supply, though it but did not give specific figures to benchmark the threshold required.

France, which relies on Russian gas for only a sliver of its supply, has not publicly stated opposition to the plan, although energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said on Wednesday: “We must anticipate and co-ordinate our actions before fixing targets that are the same for everyone.”

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen insisted that member states must show solidarity: “I know these are testing times but ... testing times require that we are well organised and well co-ordinated on a European level.”

Scenarios modelled by the commission suggest that in the case of a severe winter and serious disruptions to gas supplies EU gross domestic product could drop as much as 1.5 per cent.

“Solidarity is at risk here because member states have already said they don’t agree with the targets,” said Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, research fellow at the Jacques Delors Energy Centre. “There is going to be economic cost and if all member states act on their own it will cost more than a solution altogether. If German industry collapses, for example, the whole EU economy will fall overall.”

The proposal is for a voluntary gas reduction but the commission said it could be made mandatory if there was “a substantial risk” of a “significant deterioration” in gas supply, but did not give specific figures to benchmark the threshold required.

Under EU rules, the proposal must be approved by either 55 per cent of EU countries or by governments accounting for 65 per cent of the EU population at an emergency meeting of energy ministers next week.

But diplomats in Brussels have cast doubt that it will pass. “Across the board everyone is raising questions about what legal basis [the commission has] for triggering the emergency phase,” one said. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022