European Union leaders were warned at Friday’s EU summit that Russia may starve their countries of gas and unleash a winter of economic misery on their populations, according to people briefed on the discussions.
Two people with knowledge of the exchanges said that there is an expectation that Russia could shut off gas supplies later this year, a move which would cause energy shortages in several countries that rely heavily on Russian imports.
Moscow’s potential to shut down gas flows outright loomed over the second day of the EU summit after energy giant Gazprom slashed the flow to France and to Italy by half last week, thwarting EU hopes of refilling storage tanks before winter.
The summit ran hours over time as the 27 opened up to each other about their national circumstances in a closed meeting. Many face domestic pressure for public spending to help with soaring cost of living, but are reluctant to take steps that could drive up inflation further.
The leaders’ meeting was briefed by European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde and eurogroup president Paschal Donohoe on the prospects for the European economy and the cost-of-living crisis in a session described by one official as “very gloomy”.
A cut-off of Russian gas would mean many in eastern European countries would struggle to heat their homes this winter, and has the potential to devastate Germany’s gas-dependent industrial base.
“In reality, it already has started,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said of a gas shut-off. “It would be naive in the extreme to suggest it couldn’t happen. It’s real, and it’s a tangible reality that member states are facing.”
Emergency planning is under way across the EU as countries prepare for energy-saving measures and potential rationing while scouring the world for alternative supplies.
The European Commission is to draw up a plan for how the EU can jointly cope with disruption to gas supplies, which will be presented next month.
“Beginning prior to the war, it’s pretty clear that Russia was using energy as a weapon of war. You can see the supplies [were] reducing even before the war started, the clear objective being to leverage and create an energy crisis,” Mr Martin said.
“Energy has been weaponised, food has been weaponised, migration has been weaponised.”
German chancellor Olaf Scholz dismissed Russian claims that the gas flow through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline had to be reduced for technical reasons, describing it as a pretext that “none of us” believes.
A call by Germany to its citizens to cut their energy use this month was a “wake-up call” for the whole EU, said Belgium prime minister Alexander De Croo.
The leaders agreed to co-ordinate on policy as much as possible to make it more effective, and to try to avoid a domino effect of spending promises that would lead to political pressure for similar action elsewhere.
There were concerns over how long public patience would tolerate the economic fallout of the war.
“The Ukrainians right now are playing with their lives. We in the rest of Europe are paying with our wallets,” Latvian prime minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš told reporters.
“We’re all suffering economically because of Russia’s war.”