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The EU’s response to the energy crisis is slowly increasing. But the threat posed by Russia’s freezing of gas supplies in Europe is so too.
Next week, the European Commission will formally propose a new package of measures to lower the price of gas and protect consumers this winter and beyond – including plans to take full advantage of the EU’s collective purchasing power.
But there is still uncertainty about key aspects of the package – including whether the preferred intervention for many countries, capping gas prices at the EU level, will be part of it and, if so, in what form. Officials said it could take until November for next week’s proposals to be fully signed and operational.
Even as energy ministers discussed the measures in Prague on Wednesday, Russia issued new, veiled warnings about the depth of vulnerability in Europe.
Speaking at an energy conference in Moscow, Gazprom chief Alexei Miller warned that European homes could freeze this winter even though EU countries are close to filling their gas storage capacity.
At the same event, Vladimir Putin discussed sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines – an act that many Western governments suspect is Russia’s. He then added that the incident showed how “any vital transport, energy or communications infrastructure is under threat – no matter what part of the world it is located, who controls it, or is placed on the seabed or on land.”
In a sign that one pipeline was still potentially operating after the attack, Putin insisted that Russia was ready to send gas through it to ease Europe’s pain this winter — updating his overall strategy of gas blackmail against Europe.
“The ball, as they say, is on the side of the European Union. If they want to, let them just open the water tap,” Putin said. We are ready to provide additional quantities in the fall and winter period.”
Putin may still hope that when the reality of a winter without Russian gas begins to emerge, European governments will be more open to such initiatives — and more willing to rein in support for Ukraine in exchange for an energy lifeline.
On the EU side, Energy Commissioner Kadri Simpson was clear that while the bloc faces “difficult times”, countries will stand up to the challenges ahead if they “work together decisively and in solidarity”.
Speaking at the conclusion of an informal summit of EU energy ministers on Wednesday, she added that the next crisis package would also contain a proposal for a new gas price record and other measures to reduce demand across the bloc.
But while a row over a gas price cap has dominated the debate in recent weeks, momentum has shifted to the idea of joint buying on the international market. It is hoped that with this measure, the bloc can avoid the situation we have seen this year when member states bid each other out for supplies when gas storage facilities are filled – driving up the price for everyone.
In an informal policy paper released on Wednesday, Germany and the Netherlands outlined how such a measure could work, by boosting the EU’s existing energy platform, which was built months ago but is barely used. The German and Dutch newspaper said efforts to jointly purchase gas should be accompanied by better coordination at the EU level for gas storage next year.
The proposals indicate the extent to which the European Union is no longer simply planning how to survive this winter without blackouts. And now she is firmly planning to face the next winter’s crisis as well.
IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, who also attended Wednesday’s summit in Prague, warned ministers that “next winter could be even more difficult”.
That message was echoed in a sobering briefing from the European Union’s Energy Regulators Cooperation Agency, which outlined how difficult 2023 and possibly 2024 will be for the bloc’s energy supply. Amid the expected increase in Asia’s demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG), the European Union will face greater competition for limited LNG supplies from sources such as the United States and Qatar.
In short, every molecule of gas left in European storage after this winter may be vital – and Vladimir Putin knows it.
Victor Jacques and America Hernandez provided additional reporting.