European Union leaders opened a two-day summit Thursday divided on whether, and how, the bloc could impose a gas price cap to contain the energy crisis fueled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his strategy to choke off gas supplies to the bloc at will.
And, for once, the traditional driving duo of the EU — Germany and France — were in opposing camps, with Germany expressing doubts and holding off plans for the price cap, while most others want to push on.
“Our role is to make sure that there is a European unity and that Germany is part of it,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “It is not good either for Germany or Europe that it isolates itself. It is important that on proposals that are the subject of a broad consensus, we can find unanimity,” Macron said upon arrival at the summit.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said any dispute was on the method, not the goal. “Prices for gas, for oil, for coal, must sink; electricity prices must sink, and this is something that calls for a joint effort by all of us in Europe,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
The Netherlands too said it feared that if a price cap was set too high, supplies would simply sail by Europe and go elsewhere. “Everyone wants the gas price to come down, but you want to make sure that gas imports keep coming,” Prime Minister Rutte said.
It set the scene for arduous talks that were unlikely to be settled by Friday afternoon, when the summit is slated to end.
At the opening of the summit, the need for rock-solid EU unity in confronting Russia was to be highlighted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is expected to address the 27 national leaders by video conference from Kyiv, asking for continued help to get his nation through the winter.
Scholz said Zelenskyy shouldn’t have such worries. Reacting to Russian attacks targeting civilian infrastructure and spreading fear through cities with killer drones, Scholz said they amounted to “war crimes.”
“Even such scorched-earth tactics won’t help Russia win the war. They only strengthen the determination and staying power of Ukraine and its partners,” he told Parliament in Berlin.
The upcoming cold season will also be front and center at EU headquarters, where leaders will turn their own heat on in what are expected to be talks that will run deep into the night.
Natural gas prices spiraled out of control over the summer as EU nations sought to outbid one another to fill up their reserves for winter. Now EU leaders will seek to increasingly pool their purchases of gas and perhaps set a temporary price cap to make sure an overheated energy market doesn’t return to haunt them again.
The member states have already agreed to cut demand for gas by 15% over the winter. They have also committed to filling gas-storage facilities to at least 80% of capacity by November and — as a way of reducing gas-fired power generation — to reducing peak demand for electricity by at least 5%.
The question of possible EU gas-price caps has moved steadily up the political agenda for months as the energy squeeze tightened, with 15 countries such as France and Italy pushing for such blunt intervention.
And where Angela Merkel was the soothing voice often brokering a compromise during her 16 years as German chancellor, her successor Scholz is now at the heart of a division in the bloc.
Germany and the Netherlands maintain that market interventions like excessive price caps could hurt both the availability of natural gas and incentives for governments and consumers to save it.
A plan for the EU to pool joint purchases of gas and measures to improve solidarity with EU nations most hurt by the spiraling energy prices was expected to receive much more support, diplomats said.
Russia is increasingly relying on drone strikes against Ukraine’s energy grid and civilian infrastructure and sowing panic with hits on Ukrainian cities, tactics that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “war crimes” and “pure terror” on Wednesday.
Diplomats are already assessing more sanctions to come. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s perceived friendliness toward the Kremlin makes life tougher. Even though the previous EU sanctions targeting Russia have been approved unanimously, it has increasingly become difficult to keep Orban on board by agreeing to exemptions.
“The failed sanctions in Brussels are already an almost unbearable burden. We will urge the reconsideration of the war sanctions policy,” Orban wrote Wednesday, throwing down a political gauntlet to his colleagues.
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