European leaders are begging Brussels for a comprehensive EU-wide solution to contain skyrocketing energy prices, but so far they have only received the promise of an overwhelming set of “tools”.
The record high price of electricity is a cause of great concern in EU capitals. Governments warn that failure to address the issue could spark a public backlash against the EU and its green deal policy to reduce emissions.
However, Brussels seems reluctant to take the lead in solving the problem, leaving countries on their own against disgruntled voters and the risk of ever-high prices.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis that requires extraordinary, innovative and serious measures from the EU to control these price increases,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday on the sidelines of a summit in Slovenia attended by European leaders should focus on the Western Balkans.
Sánchez and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also raised the issue at a pre-summit dinner Tuesday evening, according to a senior EU official briefed on the meeting.
“We have asked both the Council and the Commission to have a serious debate on this matter and we have asked the Commission to be brave in its response,” said the Spanish Prime Minister.
The MEPs who discussed the issue in Strasbourg and the EU Environment Ministers who met the issue in Luxembourg also called on the Commission to come up with EU-wide solutions.
At the moment the Commission is preparing a ‘toolkit’ of policy steps that countries could use to assist consumers facing high utility bills – mostly warmed-up measures that are unlikely to bring much-needed relief. These include direct payments to the poorest households, energy tax cuts or the shift of levies to general taxation – all of these would, Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told Parliament on Wednesday, comply with EU law.
Any possible reforms to the gas market – which finance ministers of several countries said in a statement earlier this week should be explored – will be included in those already planned Revision of the EU gas market package, due on December 14th.
She also said Europe “needs to remain aware of the importance of geopolitics for energy and develop a more strategic approach to external energy policy,” but did not go into detail on what that approach might look like.
The environment ministers who met in Luxembourg on Wednesday had expected much more.
Although countries have put forward a wide variety of proposals – from a major overhaul of the bloc’s wholesale electricity market, to the use of cash from the emissions trading scheme, to lower electricity bills – a majority of ministers also insisted on the need for stronger action coordinated by Brussels.
Waiting two weeks for the European Council summit scheduled for October 21-22 – which is likely to be dominated by talks on the energy crisis – means further delays in what they believe are urgently needed.
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The cost of inaction could undermine the EU’s efforts to retool its economy to net-zero, some warned.
“The European strategy of the green energy transition is not the cause of this crisis, but the populist voices are saying exactly that: They want us to blame the Green Deal,” said Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas. “We cannot stand still and do nothing about this problem.”
“We should decide from a central, European level to show EU citizens that we care about them … kill the populist voices, support the most vulnerable households,” he said.
Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, compared the situation to the 2012 euro crisis and recalled the iconic statement made by former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, in which he argued that the EU should take all necessary steps to prevent the energy crisis from raising doubts about the viability of the bloc’s green targets.
“We can use the available public budgets to fight this … or even budgets we don’t have to protect our vulnerable families,” Ribera said. “If you are faced with exceptional situations, you must take extraordinary measures.”
But the EU institutions are also in a bind. Even if they were determined to take action, their powers to intervene in national energy policy are limited, which leaves little room for maneuver for the Council and the Commission.
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, stressed in Slovenia on Wednesday that although there is “political space” to forge a European response to the crisis, “the energy mix is a national responsibility”.
Speaking to the environment ministers in Luxembourg, Frans Timmermans, head of the Green Deal, suggested that countries keep the long-term goal in mind and said: “The best answer to this problem today is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. ”
He pointed out that climate policy was responsible for only 20 percent of the price jump and said that the culprits of the Green Deal are doing so “for perhaps ideological or sometimes economic reasons, to protect their self-interest”.
But ministers seeking both short-term solutions and the long-term dream were unimpressed by Timmermans’ attitude.
“That is not the answer our societies need to hear. We have to say what we are going to do to tackle the problem,” said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, State Secretary in the Polish Ministry of Climate Change.
David Herszenhorn contributed the reporting.