Russian gas supplier Gazprom announced on Tuesday that there will be further reductions in exports to Western Europe, with the Nord Stream 1 pipeline pumping only 20 percent of its capacity from Wednesday. The energy company stated that the disruption is due to ongoing maintenance work, but the move is being seen as part of a larger political strategy that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls an “overt gas war”.
For the European Union, which relies on Russia for approximately 40 percent of its gas supplies, this means a harsher winter ahead with the loss of its primary gas link.
The energy crisis facing the bloc now is intended to relax sanctions imposed on Russia since it invaded Ukraine back in February. But Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not only keen on alleviating the economic catastrophe affecting his country, but also hoping to undermine the solidarity between EU member states.
This was an outcome which the European Commission had already braced for, developing a proposal of a 15 percent gas reduction across all 27 states earlier this month. However, their plans to combat Russia’s challenge have been met with much resistance. Although Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are on board with the motion, other nations see it as far too extreme.
Brussels’ strategy immediately sparked an outcry from its Southern members, with Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, and Greece refusing to implement the measures. Their sentiments are not entirely unjustified—in comparison with Germany or Italy, they depend much less on Russian gas, making the reduction quota irrelevant to them.
However, these nations’ protests are not simply because of Brussels’ oversight, but because the current energy problem has revealed many weaknesses and inequalities within the European Union.
Iberia has often been isolated from much of Western Europe’s energy distribution system, adding to their governments’ disapproval of such plans. João Galamba, Portugal’s Secretary for the Environment and Energy, went as far as claiming that his country “had no links” to the bloc’s gas network. Thus, they should not be shouldering the burden of a system they hardly benefitted from.
There are also fewer pipelines running between France and Spain compared with other member states. This means that the Iberian peninsula has generally been more independent when it comes to organising their gas supplies, explaining why they are frustrated at being told to adjust their energy usage.
More controversially, the energy dilemma caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War has generated concerns over who takes precedence at the decision-making table. Brussels’ capacity to draft these plan without consulting its members has left several governments questioning its authority.
‘We will defend European values,’ announced Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera, “but we won’t accept a sacrifice regarding an issue that we have not even been allowed to give our opinion on”.
In dealing with an issue as urgent as an energy crisis and economic downturn, it is essential that EU authorities take counsel from their member states. This is not just to pay lip service to their autonomy, but also to find terms which all parties can agree on. Now, countries like Spain are frustrated that their input has been ignored.
Dissenting states are also concerned that the energy-saving strategy favours economic juggernaut, Germany. It is the nation most likely to suffer from the pipeline closure given its reliance on Russian energy, with a projected decline in their GDP by 5.9 percent by the end of 2023. But the negative growth is also due to Germany’s position as a gas transit nation, with it normally re-exporting natural gas to countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. With Europe’s foremost energy link affected, Germany faces greater revenue loss.
Berlin has been coy about Brussels’ plans gearing towards the prevention of their own economic contraction. President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen stated that it is “important that all member states curb demand (…) and share with those members that are more affected”, noticeably omitting any mention of which states or state would be most impacted.
The German government is well aware that they are in the middle of Putin’s firing line when it comes to gas war. Last year around 55 percent of its gas originated from Russia. Quietly, they are among the first to launch campaigns encouraging citizens to reduce their energy consumption, from taking shorter showers to turning off the air conditioning.
Had Germany had been more explicit about their troubles by openly appealing for assistance, then other countries may have been more willing to assist them. Instead, they have allowed their predicament to be inaccurately portrayed as a union-wide one, much to the disappointment and confusion of other governments.
The first tangible effects of the Russian pipeline closure will of course be economic. But the real test for the European Union will be how long they can cope with the political rift that has taken root due to the crisis. Putin may have opened the door for such tensions to arise, but it is clear that the European Union already suffered with internal problems surrounding their energy system, authority, and crisis-management.
Member states such as Italy and Bulgaria are yet to decide what position they will take on the proposed gas rationing. Regardless of which stance they adopt, the European Union is markedly more divided today than it was before.
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