Analysis | Does Russian gas threaten European unity? | War in Ukraine

Analysis | Is Russian gas a threat to European unity? | War in Ukraine

Solidarity between member countries of the he European Union is being tested by the energy crisis looming on the continent this winter.

Pipes from the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline facilities in Lubmin, Germany, on March 8, 2022.

Canada is not the only country that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has in his sights to diversify his country's energy supply. Qatar, India, Spain. These are all countries with which Berlin has entered into talks in order to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

While the German case, 35% of whose gas still comes from Russia, is striking, Europe's leading economic power is far from the only European country to have embarked on the challenge of diversification.

Algeria is one of Africa's leading oil and natural gas exporters.

In July, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi visited Algeria, where he announced an increase in energy supplies from the North African country.

France, whose president is also visiting Algeria this week, has side signed during the summer an energy cooperation partnership with the United Arab Emirates.

Faced with the threat of a reduction in the supply of Russian gas, European governments are trying, each on their own, to ensure that their citizens can heat themselves this winter. It remains something that is a national competence, explains SciencePo professor Thierry Bros, to describe the different strategies adopted in European capitals in terms of energy.

It is perhaps moreover the various choices made by the member countries of the European Union over the last decades which complicate the adoption of a common strategy so that the bloc adjusts to the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

If Germany had diversified [its sources of energy], we would not be in this position of hyperdependence, launches Thierry Bros, echoing the criticisms often leveled at Berlin. Germany has notably chosen to turn away from nuclear energy by betting on renewable energies, but also maintaining a great dependence on Russian natural gas.

The Grohnde nuclear power plant in Germany in 2019 (archives)

It's like asking good students not to pass so that bad students can succeed, adds Thierry Bros, recalling that some countries in southern Europe, Greece in particular, still remember the crisis of the debt of the 2010s, during which Germany had been criticized by some for its lack of solidarity.

So when the European Commission proposed a plan to cut 15% of gas consumption for next winter, it met with opposition from some member countries.

Unsurprisingly, Hungary, whose prime minister is close to Vladimir Putin and whose country depends 85% on Russian gas, opposed the strategy.

But the governments of other countries, although ideologically distant from Budapest, have also expressed reservations about this European proposal.

The Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera Rodriguez, thus declared that we could not impose unjust sacrifices without properly identifying the most united and effective contributions of each member country to achieve this common goal.

After difficult negotiations, the demand reduction plan proposed by Brussels was finally adopted at the end of July, but several countries, including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, succeeded in obtaining exemptions there.

Member States can, for example, apply for a derogation if they are heavily dependent on gas to supply critical industries or if they have limited interconnections with other countries in the European Union.

In the debates surrounding energy issues, it is sometimes national issues, specific to each country, that dictate discussions on a continental scale.

Thus , according to Professor Thierry Bros, one of the solutions that would make it possible to compensate for a decrease in Russian gas imports would be an increase in gas production in the region of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

However, extraction in this gas reserve, the largest in Europe, is the source of earthquakes which have had significant impacts on the surrounding populations and which have prompted the Dutch government to reduce the production rate.

In the northeast of the Netherlands, the face of the village of Loppersum is changing with the construction of new houses due to the damage caused to old dwellings by earthquakes caused by gas exploitation in the region.

Further south on the continent, Spain and Portugal say they are ready to ship more gas imported from the Iberian Peninsula to Germany and central Europe. To achieve this, it is proposed that a gas pipeline connects these two regions.

However, France, which would be crossed by this pipeline, is rather reluctant to the idea, given the financial and environmental weight of such a project.

European countries, very united in their initial response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will they remain as united in the face of the energy challenges they will face in the coming months?

L' EU is united and united, assured the Czech Minister of Industry and Trade, Jozef Síkela, at the end of July, after the agreement to adopt the European plan to reduce gas consumption.

But Professor Thierry Bros fears in any case that Vladimir Putin will use the gas weapon to further disunite the European Union.

The difficult winter that is coming could have an impact on the warmth of their relationship.

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