BRUSSELS — European Union energy ministers on Tuesday hammered out a deal to curb their natural gas consumption to avert an energy meltdown as Russia toys with its supply to the bloc.
The agreement reached by the 27 EU ministers provided exemptions to a handful of nations that face particular energy problems. But it still calls on all nations to cut their natural gas consumption by 15 percent between now and spring, as outlined in the initial proposal by the European Commission.
The compromise signified an important step in managing the bloc’s dependence on Russia’s energy and the vulnerabilities it breeds as the Kremlin tries to punish Europe for its support of Ukraine. It also highlighted the continued ability of the European Union to forge agreement and overcome divisions after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Unanimity was not required to pass the proposal, but all bar one of the 27 member states ended up supporting the compromise, diplomats involved in the process said. The single country to vote against it was Hungary, which has emerged as a spoiler in the latest round of critical votes on topics relating to Ukraine. Still, the country wasn’t able to veto the deal.
Before the meeting, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine accused Moscow of waging “an overt gas war” against “a united Europe” and urged leaders not to give in to Russian blackmail.
“Do everything to limit Russian revenues not only from gas and oil, but also from any remaining exports,” he said during his overnight address to his nation, adding that every trading tie offered Russia a way to exert pressure.
The European Commission last week presented a proposal to urgently cut use of the fuel across the bloc, suggesting that savings would keep all 27 members afloat should the Kremlin turn off the taps, ensuring that no single EU nation would face a crisis.
“Today, the EU has taken a decisive step to face down the threat of a full gas disruption by Putin,” the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a statement soon after the agreement was reached on Tuesday.
“By acting together to reduce the demand for gas, taking into account all the relevant national specificities, the EU has secured the strong foundations for the indispensable solidarity between member states in the face of Putin’s energy blackmail,” she said.
The rationale behind making countries that are less dependent on Russian gas cut their consumption as much as those that are more dependent is that the European Union’s economy is highly integrated and a blow to one member can harm them all.
That is especially true, if — as is the case — one of the most vulnerable belongs to Germany: the bloc’s de facto leader, one of the world’s leading industrialized nations and a major buyer of Russian natural gas.
Germany is in a particularly weak position as Russia has been slow in restoring its gas supply through a pipeline that was offline for several days this month for maintenance.
The flow of Russian gas, which provides 40 percent of EU consumption, was less than one-third of the normal average in June. For Germany, it was at just one-fifth of its capacity. Gas storage facilities in Europe, normally almost full at this point in the year in preparation for winter, are not sufficiently stocked to deal with such volatility and shortages.
Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, said on Monday that it would further reduce the amount of natural gas it sends to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, less than a week after it resumed limited flows after an annual maintenance shutdown.
The compromise plan will exempt Cyprus and Malta, two island nations with little flexibility to seek alternative energy sources, as well as the Baltic States that have electricity grids connected to Russia’s, an official statement summarizing the deal said in describing the reasons for the exemptions.
It will also give member states the ability to ask for emergency exemptions under certain circumstances. Nations in the bloc will have to agree that there’s a broader energy supply emergency to make the measures mandatory, a change from the proposal that had put the European Commission in charge of sounding that alarm.