BRUSSELS – European leaders meeting in Brussels this week were eager to focus on granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, but also had to address an urgent war-related issue: Russia slowly shut down the gas tap.
Dwindling gas to Germany in recent days has forced the country, Europe’s economic engine, to step up its energy emergency protocol and urge Germans to save energy. The next step is rationing.
On Friday, EU leaders called on the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to come forward with policy proposals to collectively manage the possibility that Russia, using Europe’s enduring dependence on its gas supplies to inflict pain on Ukraine’s supporters, could further reduce the flow of gas or even cut countries off altogether.
“We’ve seen the pattern not just for the last few weeks and months, but looking back, also the pattern for the last year, when you watch Gazprom fill up storage – or should I say not fill up storage , because last year they were at a 10-year low,” commission chair Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
“Now 12 Member States have been totally or partially cut off,” she added.
Ms von der Leyen said she would ask her experts to come up with a contingency plan to deal with possible shortages as winter approaches. The commission has already promoted the joint purchase and storage of gas by EU members as a safety measure, in case a nation goes offline. After Bulgaria’s gas supply was cut off, for example, Greece stepped in to help supply its neighbor and EU member.
But if Russia decides to hurt Europe for its support for Ukraine by further cutting supplies from its energy giant, Gazprom, it is far from clear that such ad hoc solidarity would work in the winter, when the energy demands of the block are much higher.
The EU has imposed sanctions on Russian fossil fuels, including a broad ban on Russian oil imports that will come into effect at the end of the year. But it hasn’t been able to do the same with Russian gas, on which it depends heavily, because it hasn’t yet lined up enough alternatives. Gas prices, meanwhile, have surged, costing European buyers dearly and mitigating the effect of sanctions on Russia.
And whatever solutions European leaders devise for the growing problem would take effect within months. For now, member states have to deal with possible shortages largely on their own.
Ms von der Leyen said she had been asked to present her proposals at the upcoming EU leaders’ summit in October and expected her team to finish drafting them in September.
In the meantime, she urged people to use less energy.
“We should not only replace gas, but also always benefit from energy savings. I can’t stress that enough,” she said, adding that Europeans could save a lot if they turned down their air conditioners in the summer and their heaters when the temperature drops.
Gas is not the only pressing issue facing world leaders. Diplomats also gathered in Berlin on Friday, ahead of a G-7 summit in Germany on Sunday, to discuss the growing global food crisis triggered by Ukraine’s inability to export its grain. Earlier this week, the United Nations said the war had pushed tens of millions into food insecurity.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock welcomed Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio; and other officials to discuss possible solutions.
Before the war, Ukraine exported millions of metric tons of grain every month, mostly through now-blockaded seaports. Officials weighed the possibility of moving the grain overland, a much slower and more complicated undertaking.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr Blinken said that although the food crisis would continue for some time, it was important not to let Russia get away with violating the basic human rights of the Ukrainian people.