BRUSSELS — On the brink of winter, European Union countries have been unable to overcome bitter differences as they struggle to effectively protect 450 million citizens from huge rises in natural gas bills as the cold weather sets in.
Thursday’s extraordinary meeting of energy ministers only shows how the energy crisis linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine divided the bloc of 27 countries into almost irreconcilable blocs.
A spike in natural gas prices in August stunned all but the EU’s wealthiest and forced the bloc to seek a cap to curb volatile prices that stoke inflation. After several delays, energy ministers are again trying to break the deadlock between countries that are demanding cheaper gas to ease household bills – including Greece, Spain, Belgium, France and Poland – and those such as Germany and the Netherlands that are sticking to the price cap. cut supplies.
A solution was nowhere near the horizon – to the disappointment of many.
“It’s already minus 10 (Celsius) in Poland,” said Anna Moskwa, the country’s energy minister. – Now it’s wintertime.
Natural gas and electricity prices have soared as Moscow cut gas supplies to Europe for heating, electricity and industrial processes. European officials have accused Russia of waging an energy war to punish EU countries for supporting Ukraine.
Therefore, the conclusion of the agreement does not only mean warming up the citizens, but also means showing a united face to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Negotiations have dragged on for months, and even if a summit of EU leaders last month heralded some sort of breakthrough, there was nothing to be seen on the ground. Nations were waiting for a proposal from the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, to set the threshold for a price cap, and when Tuesday arrived, they were met with consternation and accusations that it would never work.
The commission set a threshold for a “safety price ceiling” that could come into effect if prices exceed 275 euros per megawatt hour for two weeks, and if they are 58 euros higher than the world market price of liquefied natural gas.
In political terms, this means that such a system might not have prevented the rise in August.
“The €275 cap is not really a ceiling,” said Greek Energy Minister Konstantinos Skrekas, who called for a cap of up to €150.
“We are wasting valuable time without results,” he added.
By comparison, the price was 125 euros/megawatt hour on Thursday on the European TTF benchmark. Since prices have fallen since summer peaks, diplomats say the urgency has eased somewhat, although it could pick up quickly with colder-than-usual weather and tighter supplies.
About 15 nations share that view, but Germany and the Netherlands lead another group that wants to ensure gas carriers don’t bypass Europe because they can get better prices elsewhere.
“Security of supply is the most important thing. Europe must continue to be an attractive gas market,” said Estonian Economy Minister Riina Sikkut.
No decisive breakthrough is expected at Thursday’s meeting.
Czech Industry Minister Jozef Síkela, who chaired the emergency meeting, said he was aware of the “emotional reactions” to the commission’s proposal and predicted the talks would be “quite spicy”.
As a result of the trade disruptions related to Russia’s war in Ukraine, EU member states reduced the total share of Russian natural gas imports to the EU from 40% before the invasion to 7%. And the gas storage has already far exceeded the set goals and is almost exhausted.
The EU has relied on increased imports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, including from the United States, to help deal with a drop in Russian supplies.