BRUSSELS. Europe must immediately drastically cut natural gas consumption and by a total of 15% by spring to avert a major crisis as Russia cuts gas exports, the European Union’s executive said Wednesday, calling for heavy sacrifices. people of the richest group of countries in the world.
“Russia is blackmailing us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, presenting the EU plan to reduce gas consumption. “Russia uses energy as a weapon.”
Months before it invaded Ukraine in February, upending energy markets and other aspects of the global economy, “Russia deliberately kept gas supplies as low as possible despite high gas prices,” she said.
The flow of Russian gas, which supplies 40 percent of EU consumption, was less than one-third of the average in June. Europe’s gas storage facilities, usually nearly full at this time of year in preparation for winter, do not have enough stock to handle such volatility and shortages, threatening to turn industry and private life upside down.
“We need to prepare for a potential total shutdown of Russian gas supplies, and this is a likely scenario,” Ms von der Leyen said.
The European Union has already banned most Russian oil imports after painstaking negotiations this spring between its 27 member states, which made exceptions for some smaller countries such as Hungary and Slovakia. The gas cut plan is expected to be much easier to pass when EU energy ministers meet in Brussels next Tuesday because, unlike the oil embargo, it does not require unanimity.
If member countries agree to the plan and the new legislation that comes with it, the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, will eventually be able to force countries to adhere to gas limits if they don’t voluntarily do so. The commission’s proposal did not specify which enforcement mechanism would be used.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted on Wednesday that his country has wider ambitions for Ukraine than it had previously acknowledged, in the latest sign that the war is far from over, despite a pause in Moscow’s push to the east. Moscow has repeatedly changed the description of its military objectives, making conflicting statements about whether it meant overthrowing the Ukrainian government or annexing territory.
In recent months, the Kremlin has seen the war primarily as a takeover of the Donbass in the east, but Mr. Lavrov has spoken of holding on to the captured territories in Kherson and Zaporozhye regions in the south as well. A Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday that Russia intends to annex the conquered territories, justifying this with bogus referendums.
European public opinion is divided over whether support for Ukraine is worth the sacrifice, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting Europeans will not be willing to pay a high price for Ukrainian freedom and is pressuring his leaders to make a deal with Moscow.
However, public fatigue from Europe’s support for Europe may be exaggerated. A poll last week in Germany, the EU’s largest country and the country most dependent on Russian gas imports, found that only 22% of respondents would like their government to end support for Ukraine to drive down energy prices; 70 percent of respondents said they want the German government to continue its strong support for Ukraine despite the economic consequences.
In a battle for public opinion, Olena Zelenskaya, wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asked the US Congress on Wednesday to provide more weapons to defend against what she called the “Russian hunger games.”
Better Understand the Russo-Ukrainian War
“An unprovoked aggressive terrorist war is being waged against my country,” she added. “Russia is destroying our people.”
One of the obstacles to the EU plan to reduce gas consumption is that it puts forward a uniform requirement that each country reduce consumption by 15 percent between August 1 and March 31, which can be seen as unfair to such countries, like Italy, Spain and France that don’t. buy a lot of gas in Russia.
The main argument in favor of involving all EU countries, despite their different levels of vulnerability, is that the bloc’s economies are so interconnected that a hit on one means a hit on all.
“The choice we have today is to activate solidarity now or wait for an emergency that forces us to solidify,” said Franz Timmermans, a senior Dutch politician who is head of the energy and climate commission.
He said gas savings around the EU would create spare capacity to send to countries most in need during the winter, ensuring that no member state suffers an economic shock due to power shortages.
Ms von der Leyen, while politicizing a seeming economic issue, said that such an approach would hit Mr Putin, who wants to sow discord within the European Union by undermining the bloc and its most powerful countries economically and politically. Determined to backfire on him, European leaders drew close from the start of the war and took the first step toward possibly making Ukraine a member of the EU, which Mr. Putin intended to prevent.
“Putin is trying to push us around this winter, and if we stick together he will fail badly,” Ms von der Leyen said.
With Russia already cutting or shutting off gas supplies to a dozen EU countries, and looming on Thursday that it won’t fully turn on an important pipeline that was taken offline for maintenance, the bloc has few alternatives.
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Mr. Putin suggested late Tuesday that natural gas would resume pipeline deliveries to Europe, but warned that supplies could be severely curtailed.
Experts say that, along with the EU’s efforts to find new suppliers, reducing gas demand is the only way to get through this winter relatively unscathed.
Simone Tagliapietra, an expert at the Brueghel think tank in Brussels, said the European Commission’s plan was “heading in the right direction” but warned that much depended on clear and honest communication between governments and Europeans.
“This requires serious and direct public information,” he said. “Governments must ask people to consume less and must have the courage to tell their citizens that Europe is in the midst of what is arguably the greatest energy crisis in its history.”
The commission itself recognized the importance of reaching out directly to the public and said in its proposal that an important part of its plan is a media campaign encouraging people to contribute to the savings, primarily by turning off heating and cooling at home.
The commission predicts that severe disruptions in Russian gas supplies could cut 1.5 percentage points off a forecast for economic growth of 2.7 percent this year, which has already worsened, and could even plunge the bloc into recession next year.
When the war broke out, the European Union responded with sanctions against Russia, but stopping energy imports was seen as a distant prospect at best. In a few months, positions have strengthened enough to impose an almost complete embargo on Russian oil by the end of this year. However, a ban on Russian gas was not discussed, because a very large part of Europe depends on it, and there are few alternative sources.
Gas makes up a quarter of the bloc’s energy balance – it powers factories and power plants, and the vast majority of Europeans use it to heat their homes. Major disruptions will affect not only industrial production, but also the ability of Europeans to keep warm in winter.
European officials are scrambling to find alternative sources of gas and other fuels. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has signed an agreement under which his country’s Algerian gas imports will increase by 20 percent in the short term. French President Emmanuel Macron has boosted diesel supplies to his country from the United Arab Emirates, one of many European deals that rely on dirtier fossil fuels like oil and coal to make up for cut gas supplies.
The European Commission is also trying to get more gas from other reliable European countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and Qatar, while Norway, a neighbor and close ally, has already increased its supplies to the bloc.
Another short-term move is importing liquefied natural gas from the United States following President Biden’s pledge during a visit to Brussels in March, but experts warn it’s an expensive alternative with limited supplies.
Some of the swift action of European commercial diplomacy will take years to bear fruit.
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Ms von der Leyen visited Azerbaijan this week to get additional gas by 2027.