EU agrees to reduce natural gas consumption
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk
European Union energy ministers Tuesday hammered out a deal to curb their natural gas consumption, finding enough common political ground for a quick compromise intended to avert an energy meltdown as Russia toys with the bloc’s fuel supplies.
The agreement provides exemptions to nations that face particular energy problems or have been diligent in saving more gas than they needed in recent months. But it still calls on all nations to voluntarily cut their natural gas consumption 15% between now and spring.
Nations in the bloc will have to agree that there is a broader energy supply emergency to make the measures mandatory.
The agreement came less than 24 hours after Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, said that it would further reduce the amount of natural gas it sends to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Limited flows resumed less than a week ago after an annual maintenance shutdown.
The compromise, though softer than the original proposal, signified an important step in managing the bloc’s dependence on Russian energy and the vulnerabilities it breeds as the Kremlin tries to punish Europe for its support of Ukraine. It also highlighted the continued ability of the European Union to forge agreement and overcome divisions in the face of continued threats from President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“Today, the EU has taken a decisive step to face down the threat of a full gas disruption by Putin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement soon after the agreement was reached.
Unanimity was not required to pass the proposal, but only one of the 27 member states did not ultimately support the compromise, according to diplomats involved in the process. The single country to vote against it was Hungary, which has emerged as a spoiler in the latest round of critical votes on topics relating to Ukraine.
The European Commission’s original proposal last week presented a less flexible plan to urgently cut use of the fuel across the bloc, suggesting that savings would keep all 27 members afloat should the Kremlin turn off the taps, ensuring that no single EU nation would face a crisis. But it foresaw fewer exceptions and put the commission itself in charge of calling an emergency and triggering mandatory natural gas curbs.
European Commission proposals are usually maximalist, though, and take into account the process of dilution that usually ensues when EU countries, each with their particular needs, begin debating them.
Von der Leyen said that by acting together — and accounting for the energy challenges facing individual nations — the EU had “secured the strong foundations for the indispensable solidarity between member states in the face of Putin’s energy blackmail.”
The rationale behind asking countries that are less dependent on Russian gas to equally share the burden of cutting consumption is that the EU’s economy is highly integrated and a blow to one member can harm them all.
That is especially true when one of the most vulnerable economies belongs to Germany — the bloc’s de facto leader, one of the world’s leading industrialized nations and a major buyer of Russian natural gas.
Russia has been slow to restore the supply of gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which connects Russia and Germany and was offline for several days this month for maintenance.
The flow of Russian gas, which supplies 40% of the EU’s consumption, was less than one-third the normal average in June. Gas storage facilities in Europe, normally almost full at time of year in preparation for winter, are not sufficiently stocked to deal with such volatility and shortages.
The compromise plan will exempt Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, island nations with little flexibility to seek alternative energy sources, as well as the Baltic states that have electricity grids connected to Russia’s, an official statement summarizing the deal said in describing the reasons for the exemptions.
Because several EU countries — including Poland, Greece and Spain — with more modest consumption and adequate stocks saw a uniform reduction of use as unfair, the plan also spells out other grounds for more modest consumption reductions. For example, countries that have overshot their storage-filling target can compensate by cutting their use less.