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EU Russian gas contingency plan adds exemptions to resistance


PARIS — The member states of the European Union agreed on Tuesday on a plan to reduce the consumption of natural gas amid looming shortages, although, in the wake of resistance from southern European countries, the measures are less drastic than originally conceived.

While the 27 member states said a gas cut of up to 15% could become mandatory if Russia cuts off Europe and gas storage levels drop dangerously low, they “specified certain exemptions” from the goal, according to a press release.

Exemptions – which could apply in a wide range of cases – were not part of previous plans.

The countries most opposed to the tougher measures originally envisaged – Spain and Portugal, supported by France and others – argue that restrictions without exemptions would have been an illogical sacrifice, given their economies. rely less on Russian gas and thus have sufficient supplies. They are also still recovering from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and believe that countries like Germany, which have long relied on Russian gas, should bear the greatest burden.

Russia’s Gazprom to cut gas to Germany as Putin stokes uncertainty in Europe

Tuesday’s meeting of EU energy ministers came a day after Russian energy giant Gazprom announced it would cut natural gas through its main pipeline to Germany by half, placing Berlin in a particularly difficult position.

For years, the country’s political establishment has seen itself as a cautious guardian of European economic and political stability, pushing for tough austerity measures in countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal at the time. following the financial and sovereign debt crises, and condemning the nations of the South for allegedly living on the hard-earned incomes of northern and central Europeans.

Spaniards or Portuguese should stop napping and retire early, leading German politicians and commentators have repeatedly advised.

Germany now finds itself in a very different position: criticized for ignoring warnings about its longstanding dependence on Russian gas, it now needs the support of nations it has long described as economic burdens.

EU countries had already agreed to phase out Russian fossil fuels by 2027. But the flow of gas could stop much sooner.

“Winter is coming and we don’t know how cold it will be, but what we know for sure is that Putin will continue to play his dirty games,” Jozef Sikela, Czech industry minister, said on Tuesday. and Commerce. European officials have accused Russia of using reparations as a pretext to squeeze Europe, causing prices to spike and giving President Vladimir Putin leverage against Western countries backing Ukraine in the war.

Hungary, which said last week it still wanted to buy more Russian gas, was the only country to vote against the restrictions on Tuesday, according to two European officials.

But as the EU’s largest economy, Germany has been particularly singled out for its reliance on Russian gas, with the country at times depending on Russia for more than half of its supply.

“Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view,” Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, said last week. an apparent reference to Germany.

Researchers have cast doubt on the claim that gas restrictions in Spain or Portugal would benefit Germany and other countries facing shortages. “Portugal, Spain and France are effectively isolated from the wider European market due to the limited connections between Spain and France, and France and the north and the east,” Ben McWilliams and Georg Zachmann wrote. , two research analysts at the economic policy think tank Bruegel. in an analysis.

For years, the abundance of Russian gas in large parts of Europe has further limited political appetite and the urgency to fully connect Spain and Portugal to the rest of the continent’s gas network.

“We didn’t really foresee this situation – we didn’t imagine that Spain would suddenly become a huge exporter,” McWilliams said in an interview.

There are now only limited options for Spain and other countries to share their additional gas with more affected European partners, for example by re-routing Algerian gas from Spain to Italy, which also depends heavily on Russian supplies, they wrote.

The agreement reached on Tuesday takes into account some of the issues that had been raised by Spain and its allies, by granting exemptions to certain Member States which are not or only insufficiently connected to the gas networks of other Member States, or by exempting countries that have high stocking levels, among other factors.

Amid summer heatwave, Germany worries about having enough gas for winter

However, there remains a risk that the EU’s watered-down approach will exacerbate a gas supply shortfall this winter.

From Wednesday, the daily gas flow through the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline – the largest between Russia and Western Europe – will be set at 33 million cubic meters, Gazprom said Monday. This represents about 20% of the capacity, compared to 40% previously. Gazprom cited problems with a turbine, but Germany’s economy and climate ministry said it saw no technical reason for the cut in deliveries.

Germany still depends on Russia for around a third of its supplies and has been rushing to fill its gas storage facilities so that there is enough supply to heat homes this winter. New pipeline cuts this week will hamper German plans to have storage capacity 75% full by September and 95% full by November.

German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck acknowledged that he could not rule out the possibility that some European countries would ignore the voluntary target set on Tuesday, but added that he remained optimistic.

“A lot will depend on how cold the winter is,” he said. “But a lot of things have already changed.”

Germany began to cut consumption wherever it could. Some landlords are rationing hot water, which has been turned off in many public buildings, while lights have been dimmed and public fountains stand still.

Habeck said his ministry had been “overwhelmed with ideas” on how to reduce gas consumption.

“It won’t be different in other countries,” he speculated.

Aries reported from Brussels. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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