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EU unity breaks down as countries doubt the plan to reduce gas use

A proposal for European nations to reduce their gas consumption in anticipation of a potential winter supply shortage has sparked conflict in EU capitals and raised questions about whether it will be approved at a meeting of energy ministers next week.

Portugal and Spain have openly opposed the European Commission's "Save gas for a safe winter" plan, which recommended on Wednesday that all member states cut gas use by 15% between August and March compared to an average of the previous five years. It has also raised serious concerns in a number of other EU nations.

Joo Galamba, Portugal's energy secretary, said, "We cannot assume a disproportionate sacrifice on which we were not even asked for a prior opinion." Teresa Ribera, the energy minister for Spain, added a subtle dig at Germany, which gets more than half its gas from Russian imports: "Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view."

Robert Habeck, the German energy minister, responded on Thursday, saying, "the principle applies — we in Europe must save gas and that means even those countries that aren’t directly affected by the cut in gas supplies from Russia should help other countries. Otherwise, there is no European solidarity."

If Moscow continues to weaponize energy supplies, Brussels has been pressed to come up with strategies to prevent severe economic shocks throughout the bloc. But as winter approaches, the demand that members reduce their gas consumption by 15% represents a preliminary test of the EU's ability to stand as one against Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

Last week, Hungary declared an energy emergency and halted exports to the rest of the EU. The latest proposal from Brussels, according to the Századvég institute, a think tank affiliated with Budapest's Fidesz party, violated fundamental EU rights. In order to request additional gas supplies, the country's foreign minister, Peter Szijjártó, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on the same day.

"The European Commission, which attacks Hungary with baseless accusations of the rule of law, came up with a plan that disregards EU law, which violates fundamental rights, as well as both individual and national sovereignty," it said. 

Although energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher stated on Wednesday that "we must anticipate and co-ordinate our actions before fixing targets that are the same for everyone," Paris, which only gets a small portion of its gas from Russia, has not publicly voiced its opposition to the plan.

"I know these are testing times but . . . testing times require that we are well organised and well co-ordinated on a European level," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

According to scenarios the Commission has modeled, the EU GDP could decrease by as much as 1.5% in the event of a harsh winter and significant disruptions to gas supplies.

"Solidarity is at risk here because member states have already said they don’t agree with the targets," according to Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, research fellow at the Jacques Delors Energy Center. "There is going to be economic cost and if all member states act on their own it will cost more than a solution altogether. If German industry collapses, for example, the whole EU economy will fall overall."

The commission stated that the proposed voluntary gas reduction could become mandatory if there is "a substantial risk" of a "significant deterioration" in the supply of gas, but it did not provide specific numbers to serve as a benchmark for the necessary threshold.

At an emergency meeting of energy ministers next week, the proposal must be approved by either governments representing 55% of EU countries or governments representing 65% of the EU's population.

However, diplomats in Brussels have expressed skepticism that it will be approved: "Across the board everyone is raising questions about what legal basis [the Commission has] for triggering the emergency phase," one stated.



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