BRUSSELS — Europe must cut natural gas use by 15 percent from now until next spring to avoid a major crisis as Russia cuts gas exports, the European Union executive said on Wednesday, calling for hard sacrifices by the people of the world’s richest group of nations.
“Russia is blackmailing us,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, when she introduced the EU’s plan to reduce gas consumption. “Russia uses energy as a weapon.”
Months before it invaded Ukraine in February and rocked energy markets and other facets of the global economy, “Russia deliberately kept gas supplies as low as possible despite high gas prices,” she said.
The flow of Russian gas, which accounts for 40 percent of EU consumption, was less than a third of the normal average in June. Gas storage facilities in Europe, which are normally nearly full at this point of the year in preparation for winter, are not stocked enough to cope with such volatility and shortages, which threatens to turn both industry and private life upside down.
“We need to prepare for a possible complete disruption to Russian gas, and this is a likely scenario,” Ms von der Leyen said.
The European Union has already banned most Russian oil imports, following difficult negotiations this spring between the 27 member states that made exceptions for some small countries such as Hungary and Slovakia. The plan to cut gas consumption is expected to be much easier to adopt when EU energy ministers meet in Brussels next Tuesday, as unlike the oil embargo, it does not require unanimity.
If member states agree to the plan and the new legislation that comes with it, the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, would eventually be able to force countries to adhere to gas consumption limits if they voluntarily fail to do so. The committee’s proposal did not specify which enforcement mechanism would be used.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged on Wednesday that his country has broader ambitions in Ukraine that it had previously admitted, the latest indication that the war is far from over, despite a pause in Moscow’s eastern offensive. Moscow has repeatedly changed its description of its war targets and made conflicting statements about whether it intended to overthrow the Ukrainian government or annex territory.
In recent months, the Kremlin has presented the war as being primarily about conquering the Donbas region to the east, but Mr. Lavrov also talked about conquered territory in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to the south. A spokesman for the US National Security Council said on Wednesday that Russia plans to annex conquered territory, justifying this with mock referendums.
European public opinion is divided on whether supporting Ukraine is worth the sacrifice, and Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin is counting on Europeans unwilling to pay a high price for Ukrainian freedom, and to pressure their leaders to strike a deal with Moscow.
Yet the public fatigue with Europe’s support for Ukraine can be overstated. A poll in Germany, the largest EU country and most dependent on Russian gas imports, showed last week that only 22 percent wanted their government to cut aid to Ukraine to lower energy prices; 70 percent of respondents said they wanted the German government to continue to strongly support Ukraine despite the economic fallout.
In the battle for public opinion, Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, addressed the US Congress on Wednesday and asked for more weapons to defend against what she called the “Russian Hunger Games.”
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
“An unprovoked invasive terrorist war is being waged against my country,” she added. “Russia is destroying our people.”
One obstacle to the EU’s plan to reduce gas consumption is that it imposes a uniform requirement that every country must reduce consumption by 15 percent between August 1 and March 31, which could be considered unfair for countries such as Italy, Spain and France who do not. buy a lot of gas from Russia.
The main argument for getting all EU countries on board, despite their varying levels of vulnerability, is that the bloc’s economies are so interconnected that a blow to one is a blow to all.
“The choice we have today is to trigger solidarity now or wait for an emergency that will force us into solidarity,” said Frans Timmermans, a senior Dutch politician who is the committee’s energy and climate czar.
He said gas savings across the EU would create spare capacity to go to countries most in need during the winter so that no member state goes into economic shock from the lack of power.
Ms von der Leyen, who puts a political spin on a seemingly economic issue, said this approach would deal a blow to Mr Putin, who seeks to sow discord within the European Union and undermine the bloc and its most powerful countries economically and politically. Determined to backfire on him, European leaders have drawn closer since the start of the war and have taken the first step towards potentially making Ukraine an EU member – something Mr Putin wanted to prevent.
“Putin is trying to push us this winter and he will fail dramatically if we stick together,” Ms von der Leyen said.
With Russia already cutting or completely cutting off gas supplies to a dozen EU countries, and the looming threat that it won’t completely reconnect a major pipeline that has been offline for maintenance on Thursday, there are few alternatives to the bloc. Mr Putin suggested late Tuesday that natural gas would flow through the pipeline to Europe, but warned that supply could be severely curtailed.
Experts say that, along with the EU’s efforts to find new suppliers, cutting gas demand is the only way to survive this winter relatively unscathed.
Simone Tagliapietra, an expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said the European Commission’s plan is “moving in the right direction”, but he warned that much depends on clear and honest communication between governments and Europeans.
“This requires serious and direct communication with the public,” he said. “Governments must ask people to consume less and must have the courage to tell their citizens that Europe is in the midst of what may be the biggest energy crisis in its history.”
The committee itself recognized the importance of appealing directly to the public, saying in its proposal that a critical part of its plan was a mass media campaign urging people to do their part to save, primarily by reducing heating and cooling at home.
The commission predicts that major disruptions to the flow of Russian gas this year could cut as much as 1.5 percentage points from an already deteriorating economic growth forecast of 2.7 percent, and could even plunge the bloc into recession next year.
When the war started, the European Union responded with sanctions against Russia, but cutting energy imports was seen as a distant prospect at best. Within months, positions had hardened enough to impose an almost complete embargo on Russian oil by the end of this year. Yet a ban on Russian gas has remained off the table because much of Europe depends on it and alternative sources are scarce.
Gas makes up a quarter of the block’s energy mix — it powers factories and power plants, and it’s overwhelming what Europeans use to heat their homes. Major disruptions would affect not only industrial production, but also Europeans’ ability to survive the winter.
European officials have been busy listing alternative sources of gas and other fuels. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi signed a deal that would increase Algerian gas imports to his country by 20 percent in the near term. France’s President Emmanuel Macron increased his country’s diesel supplies from the United Arab Emirates – one of several European deals that rely on dirtier fossil fuels like oil and coal to offset dwindling gas supplies.
The European Commission is also trying to get more gas from other established suppliers for European countries, such as Nigeria, Egypt and Qatar, while Norway, a neighbor and close ally, has already ramped up its supply to the bloc.
Another short-term measure is to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, following a pledge by President Biden during a visit to Brussels in March, but experts warn it is an expensive alternative, with limited supplies.
Some of Europe’s whirlwind commercial diplomacy will take years to pay off. This week, Ms. von der Leyen visited Azerbaijan to obtain additional gas by 2027.