European leaders are begging Brussels for a sweeping EU-wide solution to rein in skyrocketing energy prices, but all they’ve gotten so far is the promise of an underwhelming set of “tools.”
The record high price of power is causing major concern in EU capitals, with governments warning that failure to address the problem could spark a popular backlash against the EU and its Green Deal policies aimed at slashing emissions.
But Brussels appears to be reluctant to take the lead in tackling the issue, leaving countries to fend for themselves against disgruntled voters and the risk of ever-high prices.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis that requires extraordinary, innovative, serious measures from the EU in order to control this price hike,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Wednesday on the sidelines of a summit in Slovenia where European heads of state and government were supposed to be focusing on the Western Balkans.
Sánchez and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also raised the issue at a pre-summit dinner on Tuesday evening, according to a senior EU official who was briefed on the meeting.
“We have asked both the Council and the Commission to have a serious debate about this matter, and we’ve asked the Commission to be bold in its response,” the Spanish prime minister said.
MEPs discussing the issue in Strasbourg and EU environment ministers tackling the question at a meeting in Luxembourg also called on the Commission to deliver EU-wide solutions.
For now, the Commission is preparing a “toolbox” of policy steps countries might use to support consumers facing high power bills — mostly warmed-over measures that are unlikely to deliver the desperately sought-after relief. They include direct payments to the poorest households, energy tax cuts or shifting charges to general taxation — all of which, Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson told Parliament on Wednesday, would be in line with EU law.
Any potential reforms of the gas market — something finance ministers from several countries said in a statement earlier this week should be investigated — will be included in the already scheduled revision of the EU gas market package, due on December 14.
She also said Europe needed to “remain mindful of the importance of the geopolitics of energy and develop a more strategic approach to external energy policy,” but didn’t go into detail about what that approach might look like.
Environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Wednesday were expecting much more.
Although countries have come up with a variety of proposals — ranging from a major revamp of the bloc’s wholesale electricity market to the use of Emissions Trading System cash to lower electricity bills — a majority of ministers also insisted on the need for greater Brussels-coordinated action.
Waiting two weeks until the European Council summit scheduled for October 21 and 22 — which is expected to be dominated by talks on the energy crisis — means further delays to the action they say is urgently required.
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The cost of inaction could undermine the EU’s efforts to revamp its economy to reach net zero, some warned.
“The European green energy transition strategy is not the cause of this crisis, but the populist voices say exactly this: They want us to blame the Green Deal,” said Greek Minister for Environment and Energy Kostas Skrekas. “We cannot stay put and do nothing against this problem.”
“We should decide, from a central, European level, to show EU citizens that we care about them … to kill the populist voices, to support the most vulnerable households,” he said.
Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera likened the situation to the 2012 euro crisis, evoking former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi’s iconic “whatever it takes” statement to argue that the EU should take all necessary steps to avoid the energy crisis casting doubt on the viability of the bloc’s green goals.
“We can use the public budgetary resources that are available to combat this … or even budgetary resources that we don’t have to protect our vulnerable families,” Ribera said. “When you’re faced with exceptional situations, you have to take exceptional measures.”
But the EU institutions are also in a bind. Even if they were eager to spring to action, their power to intervene in national energy policies is limited, giving the Council and Commission little margin in which to maneuver.
In Slovenia on Wednesday, European Council President Charles Michel stressed that while there might be “political space” in which to forge a European response to the crisis, “the energy mix is a national responsibility.”
Speaking to environment ministers in Luxembourg, Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans suggested countries keep their eye on the long-term goal, saying “the best answer to this problem today is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”
He pointed out that climate policies were responsible for just 20 percent of the price jump, and said those blaming the Green Deal were doing so “for perhaps ideological reasons or sometimes economic reasons in protecting their vested interests.”
But ministers seeking short-term fixes as well as the long-term dream were unimpressed with Timmermans’ take.
“That’s not the answer our societies need to hear. We need to say what we are going to do to address the problem,” said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, undersecretary of state at the Polish Ministry of Climate.
David Herszenhorn contributed reporting.