Coal built the EU. Will gas destroy it?

EuroActiv Politico News

Seventy years ago, in the wake of a devastating war, it was energy — specifically coal — that first brought European countries together to form a common market in the quest for peace. 

Today, in a new era of war and geopolitical rivalry, it is energy once again — this time gas — that’s threatening to tear that unity apart.

Increasingly bitter recriminations over the bloc’s response to Russia’s weaponization of Europe’s gas supply look set to overshadow Friday’s informal EU summit in Prague.

Leaders gathering in the Czech capital hope to agree on a common approach to bring down soaring gas prices and protect businesses and citizens this winter and beyond.

But the challenges facing them are severe. Recent days have seen public arguments break out between nations at the highest levels. 

Germany, the European Union’s economic powerhouse, stands accused by others of showing a lack of solidarity by spending €200 billion to shield its own consumers and businesses from the impact of high energy prices. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the risks to European unity. Russia’s “manipulation and weaponization of the energy … deliberately tries to blackmail and split close partners,” she said in a joint statement with Norway’s prime minister on Thursday. 

The questions facing leaders on Friday are philosophical as much as they are technical.

While every leader will talk up the need to show “solidarity” in support of Ukraine and in defiance of Russia’s squeeze on gas supplies, there remains disagreement about what solidarity looks like. 

On one side, a coalition of countries is demanding more urgency from the European Commission on implementing some form of universal cap on the price of gas, arguing that a limit will benefit less well-off countries.

Meanwhile Germany, the bloc’s most powerful member — which has long had reservations about a price cap — is pushing an alternative means of solidarity. Berlin wants to force gas prices lower by negotiating purchases as one joint bloc of 27 countries. 

The EU “should bundle its market power and orchestrate smart and synchronized purchasing behavior among EU countries so that individual EU countries do not outbid each other and drive up world market prices,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said earlier this week. Europe’s joint market power is “enormous,” he added. 

Coal imported from abroad lies at Hamburg Port | Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has indicated he’s willing to discuss different options and in truth, all countries recognize the need to pull together; a spirit that was captured in European Council President Charles Michel’s call this week for a “genuine energy union.” 

But the rhetoric of European solidarity is already colliding with national interests as governments prepare their populations for energy rationing and potentially power cuts. 

“Prague is about one thing,” said a senior official from a country that backs a gas price cap. “Can we stop the game where everybody is playing solo instead of working together? We all worked together with the pandemic, now with energy, it’s each country for itself.”

Old certainties crumble

The energy crisis, like the pandemic before it, represents a threat to the EU so overwhelming that old certainties and practices are dropping by the wayside. 

Already countries have taken steps unthinkable only a few months ago. Germany and France have brought major energy companies like EDF and Uniper under state control. EU countries as a whole have agreed significant, mandatory cuts in electricity demand and finalized plans to intervene in markets to tax power company profits and redistribute them to citizens and businesses who need help paying their bills.

With gas storage facilities now at 90 percent across the bloc and wholesale gas prices coming down from their summer peak, some EU diplomats are cautiously optimistic that the bloc may yet make it through this winter without major shortages or power cuts. 

But, as EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said last week, “next winter will be even more difficult.” 

That’s partly because the bloc will have to start refilling gas storage facilities from next spring without the baseline of Russian gas supply, which until this year provided 40 percent of the EU’s needs.

Those countries now backing the idea of collective purchasing of gas point to this year’s rush to fill up storage facilities and the way it drove prices higher.

When stocking up on gas in summer 2023, one senior EU diplomat said, “we need to make sure to coordinate with each other, in such a way that we are not driving up the price in Europe ourselves.”

The other great test of Europe’s solidarity, this winter and beyond, will be its ability to share those gas supplies between countries in the event of shortages. Failure to do so, said Elisabetta Cornago, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, would damage not only people’s well-being — but faith in the EU itself.

French minister of Foreign affairs Robert Schuman signs the official treaty of the Schuman Plan which creates the European Coal and Steel Community | Staff/Intercontinentale/AFP via Getty

“It will mean businesses shutting down or, depending on how cold the winter is, it could mean insufficient gas for warming homes in parts of the EU,” she said. “That is an extreme scenario but if that happens and the concept of ‘energy solidarity’ does not translate into actual flows, then there is a risk of that being exploited by populist forces — and prompting a backlash against Brussels.”

When he launched the European Coal and Steel Community on May 9, 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman declared that it would lock in solidarity at the heart of the continent, just five years after the end of World War II. 

The shared market for coal and steel would make “any war between France and Germany … not merely unthinkable but materially impossible,” he said. 

While such a conflict remains unthinkable today, a bitter struggle to secure basic resources still threatens the European project with its most critical test yet. 

Hans von der Burchard and Barbara Moens contributed to this article.

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