The EU energy ministers agreed on an emergency plan in Brussels on Tuesday, according to which gas consumption is to be reduced by 15 percent on a voluntary basis by the end of March. In view of the scenario of a complete Russian gas supply stop, the EU Commission had previously proposed more ambitious targets for reducing raw material consumption. However, the Brussels decision now provides for numerous exceptions. An overview.
In a majority decision, the EU energy ministers agreed that the consumption of natural gas in the individual countries should be reduced by 15 percent in the period from August 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023 compared to the average value of the past five years.
How the states achieve this savings target is initially up to them. The principle of voluntariness applies here. In principle, in this first phase of the gas emergency plan, companies, public administrations and private households should be called upon to save as much natural gas as possible.
If there should be far-reaching gas supply bottlenecks in the coming winter, in a second stage the voluntariness should become compulsory. Originally, the plan of EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen provided that in the event of an emergency, the Brussels authorities could oblige the member states to reduce consumption by 15 percent without any major hurdles.
After days of deliberations among the member states, however, it was clear that the EU Commission should not be given too much influence. The final decision on whether to raise an EU-wide alert should rest with the member states. According to the planned mechanism, the EU Commission can only initiate emergency measures if requested to do so by at least five countries. Then there is another hurdle: A decision on the obligation to save gas is only possible if a group of 15 countries agrees. In addition, they must together make up at least 65 percent of the total population of the EU.
During the final preliminary consultations among the EU ambassadors on Monday, there were downright exceptions, which a number of member states could make use of in the coming winter if the worst comes to the worst. They would then not be affected by the mandatory savings targets in the event of a possible EU alarm. This applies to Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, for example. Due to their island location, the three countries cannot be obliged to save gas as long as they are not directly connected to the interconnected gas network of another Member State. Spain and Portugal can also refer to an exception because they are not connected to the interconnected grid.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are still connected to a common power grid with Russia and Belarus, can also benefit from special regulations. If Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin decides to cut off electricity supplies to the Baltic states, they would have little power to reduce gas consumption. In this scenario, they would then have to make greater use of gas-fired power generation.
Individual branches of industry are also to be expressly exempted from a possible obligation to save gas. Natural gas should continue to be able to be used unabated in food production.
In view of the numerous special regulations, there is skepticism in Brussels as to whether the savings targets set by the EU Commission can be achieved. According to calculations by the Brussels authorities, a 15 percent reduction in consumption should save 45 billion cubic meters of gas across the EU by the end of March. “It is clear that with all these exceptions we cannot reach the 45 billion cubic meters,” said EU diplomatic circles on Tuesday.
First of all, the planned savings are in the interests of Germany, which, like Austria and Italy, is currently still very heavily dependent on gas imports from Russia and would therefore be particularly hard hit by a complete cessation of Gazprom deliveries. If less natural gas is consumed everywhere in the EU, then the export ability of EU countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium, on which Germany, along with Norway, is particularly dependent when it comes to importing the raw material, will increase again. Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) also made it clear in Brussels that Germany, for its part, would meet its delivery obligations to Austria and the Czech Republic. “We see ourselves fully as part of European solidarity and will also pass on the gas,” said Habeck.
However, due to the numerous exceptions, it is foreseeable that gas consumption in Germany would have to be reduced by more than 15 percent in the event of a complete stop to Russian deliveries. According to Habeck, 14 to 15 percent less gas is currently being used in Germany compared to last year. However, it remains to be seen whether this savings effect can also be maintained during the forthcoming heating period.
Hardly any minister missed the opportunity in Brussels on Tuesday to express the EU’s unity in the face of Putin’s power games. However, Hungary did not agree to the majority decision. Polish Climate Minister Anna Moskwa also expressed clear skepticism on Tuesday morning. “We cannot support any decision that is being imposed,” she said. According to Moskva, the question of gas consumption is a national responsibility. However, the decision of the energy ministers makes it clear that the consumption of the raw material in the coming winter – despite the numerous exceptions – concerns all Europeans.