Southern rebellion threatens to sink EU gas rationing plan – POLITICO

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Move over, Germany – this time the south has the upper hand.

A group of mostly southern European Union countries have already rejected Brussels’ offer to hand themselves the power to ration gas around the bloc less than 24 hours after the proposal was launched on Wednesday.

The emergency measure – widely seen as designed to save Berlin if its gas link to Russia, the Nord Stream gas pipeline, were to stop working – would allow the EU executive to impose a mandatory 15% reduction in consumption of gas from August to May. Such action could be « triggered at any time », if the scarcity of supplies made sharing between EU neighbors necessary.

But ministers from Poland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Greece have already said adamantly ‘no’ to the proposed power grab and binding gas cuts, while three EU diplomats confirmed that there were currently not enough votes to pass the new rules. Approval requires a qualified majority – 15 countries representing 65% of the bloc’s population. Individual vetoes are not allowed under the controversial emergency procedure.

Hungary has gone a step further by announcing that it has no plans to let gas leave its borders from next month. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó actually flew to Moscow on Thursday in a bid to buy more Russian supplies while still possible.

EU energy ministers are expected to discuss the proposal and the looming winter gas crisis when they meet next Tuesday, but at this point the Commission’s proposal could already be a lost cause.

For once, that means Germany may not get what it wants.

The geographical distribution of votes is nothing new in the Brussels bubble. But unlike previous spats over economic aid – pitting the frugal Nordics and North West against a South East bloc in need of funds – this time it’s the EU periphery with access to non-Russian gas. who does not want to throw a lifeline to Germany.

Leaders are bracing for a possible Russian gas supply halt, after 12 EU countries were hit with supply cuts or outright disconnections in recent weeks. But so far, that’s not enough to convince capitals to give up control of energy consumption at home.

« It really is mission impossible – even Tom Cruise couldn’t get it through now, » an EU diplomat said. of country favorable to the measure.

German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck on Thursday criticized countries that did not want to board.

“We need to save energy in Europe, and above all gas,” Habeck told a press conference. « And that also means that countries that are not directly affected by Russia’s gas cuts should help other countries. Otherwise there would be no European Solidarity.

German Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economics and Climate Protection Robert Habeck | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

Many disagree, especially in Athens – which has a bitter memory of demanding financial solidarity from Germany during the 2015 debt crisis.

« Let’s say we reduce [gas use] 15% does not mean that more gas will go to Germany. This does not mean that there are empty pipelines that could be filled,” Greek Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas told local radio on Thursday. “It is curious how the Commission made this announcement without serious consultation.

The Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, denounced the Brussels plan as « neither the most effective, nor the most efficient, nor the fairest ».

« We are totally against it, » said Portugal’s Secretary of State for Energy and Environment, João Galamba.

EU island nations are also rebelling, arguing that they are not connected to the central grid and therefore cannot send precious gas to needy mainland neighbours.

“This should not apply to Cyprus until the island is directly interconnected with the EU natural gas network,” a Cypriot official said on Thursday.

Skrekas said he and Ribera co-authored a letter of objection to be signed by disgruntled capitals, which Skrekas said could also include Paris, Rome, Valletta and Bratislava.

Spanish ministry officials confirmed they were in contact with their counterparts in Greece, Italy, France and others, but said the joint letter would seek alternative solutions to achieve the desired gas savings throughout. the block.

« France has not expressed its position, » said a spokesman for the French energy ministry. The Italian, Slovak and Maltese permanent representations to the EU did not respond to requests for comment on the claims they were considering signing Greece’s letter.

Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg sided with Germany in favor of the emergency rules. Bulgaria is still analyzing the proposal.

Not all other EU countries responded to a survey about their stance on the proposed gas cut.

According to the voting rules, even if France is in favor, the emergency proposal will fail if Italy throws its weight behind publicly opposing countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans give a press conference on the ‘Save gas for a safe winter’ package at EU headquarters | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

And while several diplomats said Italy was unhappy with the draft rules, the collapse of the Italian government sparked by the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday did not wreak havoc on the formation of the coalition. .

« I will speak with the Italian energy minister tonight, » Skrekas said on Thursday.

A ‘no’ vote from Italy would send the Commission back to the drawing board on its gas-saving plans – which it would have to revamp quickly if it hopes to get enough countries on board by then. extraordinary meeting of the Energy Council next Tuesday and put measures in place before the start of the heating season.

Who has the power?

While some countries believe that a 15% reduction in gas consumption is already too much to ask, the main bone of contention is that the mandatory trigger can be activated without national consent.

« Not everyone in the room likes Article 4, the trigger for mandatory targets, » said the diplomat from the supportive country. « What unites everyone is to say that this is unacceptable, because the Council must be responsible for these kinds of strategic decisions. National parliaments cannot be caught off guard about this. »

In an early draft of the proposal seen by POLITICO, mandatory cuts would have been activated at the request of at least two countries.

The final proposal – if adopted – would require the Commission to consult EU members, but would not require permission to activate the binding cuts.

The Spaniard Ribera denounced the fact that Brussels « has put forward [its proposal] without a general orientation debate in the European Council, while the economic consequences and the redistributive impacts are particularly significant.

Polish Climate Minister Anna Moskwa warned that « the solidarity mechanism must not lead to a reduction in the energy security of any member state ».

But countries that have already economized are urging their neighbors to follow suit.

« Saving energy is one of the most important steps we can take to reduce our dependence on Russian gas, » Dutch Energy and Climate Minister Rob Jetten told POLITICO. The country has managed to cut its energy consumption by a third this year so far, thanks to a mild winter and a voluntary savings campaign. “The Netherlands fully supports a mandatory energy saving target,” added Jetten.

A Luxembourg ministry official also said his country was pleased that measures targeting energy demand had finally been proposed, after initial responses focused on supply storage.

Danish Energy Minister Dan Jørgensen played it cool. « We have been in Denmark for some time preparing for this situation, » he told local media. « It’s not something the average Dane will feel overnight. »

Several diplomats and national officials have argued that the real goal – saving 45 billion cubic meters of gas, or 15% of European consumption – can be achieved in a deal that does not cede emergency powers to Brussels.

Hans von der Burchard, Giorgio Leali and Paola Tamma contributed reporting.

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