Fearing Russian cuts, Europeans were asked to increase their rations of natural gas

BRUSSELS – Europe must significantly cut its natural gas use immediately, and a total of 15% between now and spring, to avert a major crisis as Russia cuts gas exports, affiliates Executives of the European Union said on Wednesday, calling for hard sacrifices by those from among the world’s richest nations.

“Russia is blackmailing us,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, introducing a plan to reduce EU gas consumption. “Russia is using energy as a weapon.”

Months before invading Ukraine in February, undermining energy markets and other aspects of the global economy, “Russia purposefully kept gas supplies as low as possible despite gas prices burning high,” she said.

The flow of Russian gas, which supplies 40% of EU consumption, is a third below the usual average in June. Gas storage facilities in Europe, which are often nearly full at this time of year in preparation for winter, do not have enough reserves to cope with such volatility and shortages that threaten to affect industry and private life.

“We have to be prepared for a potential complete disruption of Russian gas, and this is a possible scenario,” Ms. von der Leyen said.

The European Union has banned most Russian oil imports, after intense negotiations this spring between the 27 member states resulted in exceptions for a few small countries such as Hungary and Slovakia. The plan to cut gas use 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 requires consensus.

If member states agree to the plan and the new law that comes with it, the commission, the bloc’s executive body, will eventually be able to force countries to comply with gas consumption limits if they don’t. voluntarily do so. The committee’s proposal did not specify what enforcement mechanism would be used.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, admitted on Wednesday that his country has broader ambitions in Ukraine than it had previously acknowledged, the latest sign that the war is not yet over, though Moscow’s eastern offensive has halted. Moscow has repeatedly changed the description of its war goals, making conflicting statements about whether it intends to overthrow the Ukrainian government or annex the territory.

In recent months, the Kremlin has viewed the war primarily as taking over the Donbas region to the east, but Lavrov also talked about holding onto the captured territory in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to the south. A Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday that Russia wanted to annex the occupied territory, justifying it with fake referendums.

European public opinion is divided over whether supporting Ukraine is worth the sacrifice, and Russian President Putin is convinced that Europeans are not willing to pay the high price for Ukraine’s freedom and put pressure on them. forcing their leaders to reach an agreement with Moscow.

However, public fatigue with European support for Ukraine may be overstated. A poll in Germany, the EU’s largest and most dependent on Russian gas imports, last week found that only 22% wanted their government to limit its support to Ukraine to lower energy prices. quantity; 70% of respondents said they want the German government to continue to strongly support Ukraine despite the economic downturn.

To combat public opinion, Olena Zelenska, the wife of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, addressed the US Congress on Wednesday, demanding more weapons to fight what she called “the hunger game of the United States.” Russia”.

“A gratuitous war of terror is being waged against my country,” she added. “Russia is destroying our people.”

One obstacle to the EU’s plan to cut gas use is that it introduces a uniform requirement that each country cut its consumption by 15% between August 1 and March 31, which This could be seen as unfair to countries like Italy, Spain and France. buy a lot of gas from Russia.

The main argument for getting all EU states involved, despite their varying degrees of vulnerability, is that the bloc’s economies are so interconnected that a blow to one is a blow to all. chief.

Frans Timmermans, a senior Dutch politician who heads the committee on climate and energy, said: “The choice we have today is to activate solidarity now or wait. Waiting for an emergency will force us to unite.

He said saving gas across the EU would create redundancy to go directly to the countries most needed in winter, ensuring that no member state fell into an economic shock. for lack of electricity.

Ms von der Leyen, who puts politics on a seemingly economic one, said this approach would deal a blow to Mr Putin, who wants to sow discord within the European Union, undermining the bloc. and the most powerful countries economically and politically. Determined to backfire on them, European leaders have drawn closer together since the war began and have taken the first step toward possibly making Ukraine an EU member – something he said would be the first step towards making Ukraine a member of the EU. Putin set out to prevent.

Ms von der Leyen said: “Putin is trying to push us around this winter and he’s going to fail badly if we stick together.

With Russia having cut or completely cut off gas supplies to dozens of EU countries and the potential threat that it will not fully reconnect a key pipeline on Thursday that was disrupted to protect maintained, the alternatives of the block are few. Putin suggested late on Tuesday that natural gas would continue to flow to Europe via pipelines, but warned that supply could be severely cut.

Experts say that, along with the EU’s efforts to align new suppliers, cutting gas demand is the only way to survive relatively peacefully this winter.

Simone Tagliapietra, an expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said the European Commission’s plan was “on the right track”, but he warned that many factors depend on clear and neutral communication. between European governments and peoples.

“This requires serious and frank communication with the public,” he said. “Governments must ask people to consume less and should have the courage to tell their citizens that Europe is in the midst of what could be the biggest energy crisis in its history.”

The committee itself recognized the importance of engaging the public directly and said in its proposal that a key part of its plan was a mass media campaign urging people to do so. do their part to conserve, mainly by cutting back on home heating and cooling.

The committee predicts that major disruptions to Russian gas flows could knock 1.5 percentage points off the already depressed economic growth forecast of 2.7% this year and even could plunge the bloc into recession next year.

When the war began, the European Union responded with sanctions against Russia but cutting energy imports was seen as a distant prospect. Within months, positions were tough enough to impose a near-total embargo on Russian oil by the end of the year. However, a ban on Russian gas is still out of the question because so much of Europe depends on it and alternative sources are scarce.

Gas makes up a quarter of the bloc’s total energy – it fuels factories and power plants, and overwhelms what Europeans use to heat their homes. Major disruptions will not only affect industrial output, but also affect Europeans’ ability to keep warm throughout the winter.

European officials are scrambling to arrange alternative sources of gas and other fuels. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has signed an agreement that will increase his country’s imports of Algerian gas by 20% in the short term. President Emmanuel Macron of France has ramped up 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 offset offset the decreasing gas supply.

The European Commission is also trying to secure more gas from other long-standing suppliers to European countries, such as Nigeria, Egypt and Qatar, while Norway, a neighbor and close ally, is also trying to secure more gas from other established suppliers. close, has increased supply to the block.

Another short-term move is to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, under a pledge made by President Biden during a visit to Brussels in March, but experts warn that this is an expensive alternative. , with limited supply.

Some European trade diplomacy will take years to bear fruit. This week, Ms. von der Leyen visited Azerbaijan to secure additional gas – in 2027.

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