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Opinion Why Europe is tougher than you thought

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at a news conference in Brussels on July 20. (Stephanie Lecocq/ EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
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Max Bergmann is the director for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Europeans may be baking in an epic heat wave, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in focusing their thoughts on the coming winter. By temporarily shutting down a crucial pipeline in the past few days, Russia has signaled that it is prepared to cut off its natural gas supply, leaving a gas-dependent continent without enough energy to meet winter energy demands. Factories may be forced to close, consumers may have to ration heating and a recession is likely.

But if Putin thinks Europe will buckle, he’s wrong. Europe will do what it takes to get through the crisis and will come out stronger because of it.

Europe is paying for a catastrophic German policy choice. During the 16 years of Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor, Germany doubled down on its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The abundance of cheap Russian gas has fueled Germany’s export economy and also enabled Merkel’s decision to close Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Rarely has a policy choice had such direct, catastrophic consequences. If the gas is turned off, the German economy — and the European Union’s — is going to suffer severely.

Russia is feeling the bite of sanctions imposed by the West after the invasion of Ukraine. Putin hopes that turning off the flow of gas will make Europe back down. He is probably expecting howls of pain from business communities and ordinary voters to push politicians into providing sanctions relief in exchange for opening up the gas taps. Many analysts in the United States and Europe fear a collapse of political will in Europe. “Russia is blackmailing us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.

But shutting off the gas to Europe won’t cause Europe to buckle. Over the past decade, Europe has shown time and time again that it is not soft. No, the E.U. will in fact do whatever it takes to get through this crisis.

When the euro was on the verge of collapse, then-European Central Bank President Mario Draghi vowed to “do whatever it takes” to save the currency. After populism surged in response to the migration crisis, the E.U. adopted a hard-line stance, cutting a deal to buy off Turkey to keep migrants and creating an armed border guard service. When migrants were forcibly being kept out of the E.U. in Greece and Poland, resulting in deaths, von der Leyen flew in not to condemn the response but to show solidarity. When covid struck, the economic hit was predicted to destroy the E.U. Instead, Brussels borrowed money for the first time, bought vaccines and came out stronger. After Russia invaded Ukraine, threatening Europe’s security, the E.U. shocked the world with the strength of its sanctions, increases in defense spending and the willingness to provide lethal weapons. Europe protects its union.

Instead of weakening Europe’s resolve to stand by Ukraine, cutting off gas will reinforce it. European leaders will not be caught off guard. They believe that Russia will cut off the gas and are making it clear that Putin is to blame. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky harshly criticized an agreement between Europe and Canada to export a gas turbine to Russian energy giant Gazprom to upgrade the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, but that was actually a deft political move. German politicians are making it clear to their publics that they want the gas to flow, and if it stops it is because Putin cut it off. Putin will be the one causing this hardship, not Europe. A recent poll shows that an overwhelming 70 percent of Germans want to continue backing Ukraine. Cutting off gas will not soften, but harden, European attitudes toward Russia.

Meanwhile, the E.U. is putting itself on an (energy) war footing. On Wednesday, von der Leyen announced that the E.U. states may have to ration their gas use by 15 percent. The E.U. has also pushed bold proposals to reduce reliance on Russia. Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, trusted by climate activists and the business community, is leading the way. His willingness to build new energy links and infrastructure, to open new LNG terminals, to travel to Qatar to buy gas, and even to expand coal use has demonstrated that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get through the crisis.

Europe’s focus on getting through the winter has led to concerns that the climate agenda has been abandoned. On the contrary, Europe is also accelerating the clean transition and acting with a degree of urgency not thought possible. Europeans, desperately in need of new energy sources, are ramming through projects that might otherwise take years to receive approval. While emissions may increase in the next few years due to increased coal use, the E.U. is likely to dramatically reduce its carbon output in the years to follow. In stark contrast to the United States, the E.U. is positioning itself to show the world how an economy can rapidly decarbonize.

Crises strengthen, not weaken, Europe’s union. Time and time again, Europeans unify in response to a crisis. Even if Europe faces a cold winter, there is no reason to think this time will be any different.

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