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Virginia Mayo
Europe

EU asks member states to cut gas use by 15% over winter to avoid Russian 'blackmail'

The Taoiseach has said Ireland is not overly reliant on Russian gas but rising cost due to a shortage may be a factor here.

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has urged EU countries to reduce demand for natural gas by 15 percent over the coming months to secure winter stocks and defeat Russian “blackmail”.

Announcing an emergency plan, EU commissioners also asked member states to give Brussels special powers to impose compulsory energy rationing if Russia cuts off Europe’s gas lifeline.

It said this would happen: “when there is a substantial risk of a severe gas shortage or an exceptionally high demand of gas occurs, which results in a significant deterioration of the gas supply situation”.

The need is high, said EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

“Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon. And therefore, in any event, whether it’s a partial major cut-off of Russian gas or total cut-off of Russian gas, Europe needs to be ready,” Ms von der Leyen said.

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin, speaking on RTE from Tokyo, said that Ireland was not reliant on Russian gas but that there was a need to stockpile to prevent a price hike.  

“Our supply lines are somewhat different in terms of Norway to the UK to Ireland in terms of gas.

“We do see issues with energy in terms of pricing certainly, as we move into the autumn and supply in terms of the broader European experience, but so it’s a watching brief where we’re part of those discussions in terms of what the Commission is doing right now.

“But the International Energy Agency also said we need to have sufficient storage in place for the winter, across Europe. Now they’re talking very much in the context of some member states that are very, very heavily reliant on Russian gas.

“We are not at all as reliant on Russian gas. But what we have overall concerns of is if the overall supply levels reduce that has real consequences for cost and the price of energy,” he said. 

Emergency meeting

EU member states will discuss the measures at an emergency meeting of energy ministers next Tuesday.

For these measures to be approved, member states would have to consider yielding their powers over energy policy to Brussels.

Wednesday’s proposal comes at a time when a blog post from the International Monetary Fund has warned about the power Russian President Vladimir Putin could wield by weaponising energy exports and choking off the 27-nation bloc.

“The partial shut-off of gas deliveries is already affecting European growth, and a full shutdown could be substantially more severe,” the IMFBlog warned.

It added that gross domestic product in member nations like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic could shrink by up to 6%.

Italy, a country already facing serious economic problems, “would also face significant impacts”.

belgium-eu-russia-ukraine-gas European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, speaks with European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, left, and European Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life Margaritas Schinas during the weekly College of Commissioners meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels. Virginia Mayo Virginia Mayo

EU economic forecasts last week showed that Russia’s war in Ukraine is expected to wreak havoc with economic recovery for the foreseeable future, with lower annual growth and record-high inflation.

The disruptions in Russian energy trade threaten to trigger a recession in the bloc just as it is recovering from a pandemic-induced slump.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU has approved bans on Russian coal and most oil to take effect later this year, but it did not include natural gas because the 27-nation bloc depends on gas to power factories, generate electricity and heat homes.

Now, it fears Mr Putin will cut off gas anyway to try to wreak economic and political havoc in Europe this winter.

Such threats have forced the bloc’s head office to make a plan centred on energy cuts and savings that might make for a much colder winter, but one without massive disruptions.

“We have to be proactive. We have to prepare for a potential full disruption of Russian gas. And this is a likely scenario. That’s what we’ve seen in the past,” Ms von der Leyen said.

Essential industries

The aim is to ensure essential industries and services like hospitals keep functioning, while others would have to cut back.

That could include lowering heat in public buildings and enticing families to use less energy at home.

“Assuming there is a full disruption of Russian gas, we need to save gas, to fill our gas storage faster, and to do so we have to reduce our gas consumption. I know this is a big ask,” Ms von der Leyen said.

EU nations and the Commission have gone on a buying spree to diversify their natural gas sources away from Russia, but they are still expected to fall far short of providing businesses and homes with enough energy in the cold months.

Even if the EU has enough gas to keep the lights on and factories running right now, it does so at painfully high prices that have fuelled runaway inflation and caused public uproar.

Russia has cut off or reduced gas to some EU countries, and there are fears the energy crisis will get worse if Moscow does not restart a key pipeline to Germany after scheduled maintenance ends on Thursday.

Already, a dozen nations from one day to the next have experienced supply disruptions from Gazprom.

The energy squeeze is also reviving decades-old political challenges for Europe.

While the EU has gained centralised authority over monetary, trade, antitrust and farm policies, national capitals have jealously guarded their powers over energy matters.

The European Commission has spent decades chipping away at this bastion of national sovereignty, using previous supply disruptions to secure gradual gains in EU clout.

The five-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine is now the starkest test of whether member countries are willing to cede more of their energy powers.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, member states did join in common action to help develop and buy vaccines in massive quantities in an unprecedented show of common resolve in the health sector.

“This is a moment for Europe to build upon the decisive action and solidarity displayed during the pandemic to address the challenging moment it faces today,” the IMFBlog said.

With reporting from Press Association and © AFP, 2022

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