PARIS — European Union governments Tuesday agreed on a plan to reduce natural gas consumption amid looming shortages, although after resistance from southern European countries the measures are more limited than originally conceived.
But they introduced exemptions that could apply in a wide range of cases and had not been part of the initial plan. They also raised the bar for transitioning from voluntary to mandatory cuts.
The nations most opposed to the strict original proposal — Spain and Portugal, supported by France and other countries — argued that uniform curbs without exemptions would have been an illogical sacrifice, given that their economies aren’t reliant on Russian gas and they expect to have sufficient supplies. It’s Germany — which ignored warnings and grew to depend on Russia for more than half of its gas supply — that should carry the biggest burden, they said.
“Unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view,” Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera Rodríguez said last week, in an apparent reference to Germany.
Fault lines between northern and southern Europe are a recurring theme in E.U. debates. But in this case, the usual power dynamics are flipped.
Germany’s political establishment for years has viewed itself as a prudent guardian of European economic and political stability. German officials pushed for tough austerity measures in Spain, Greece and Portugal in the wake of financial and sovereign debt crises.
And at times they have condemned southern nations for supposedly living off the hard-earned income of northern and central Europeans. People in Spain and Portugal should stop taking siestas and retiring early, leading German politicians and commentators repeatedly advised.
Germany now finds itself in a very different position: Criticized for having behaved irresponsibly with its long-standing reliance on Russian gas, and now in need of solidarity and forbearance from nations it has sometimes only begrudgingly supported.
Despite an effort to diversify its energy, Berlin remains at the mercy of the whims of Moscow. Tuesday’s meeting of E.U. energy ministers came a day after Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would halve the natural gas flowing through its main pipeline to Germany. Gazprom cited problems with a turbine, but German officials said they saw no legitimate reason for the reduction.
E.U. leaders maintain that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using energy exports as leverage over countries that have backed Ukraine during the war.
“The winter is coming, and we don’t know how cold it will be, but what we know for sure that Putin will continue to play his dirty games,” Jozef Sikela, the Czech Republic’s minister of industry and trade, said Tuesday in Brussels.
The European Commission had hoped its initial rationing plan — with uniform 15 percent cuts — would accommodate for any gap left by a full Russian export halt. But officials said Tuesday they didn’t know how much gas would be saved with the exemptions in place.
And whereas the commission wanted to give itself the power to make gas rationing enforceable on short notice, the approval of a qualified majority of national governments will now be required.
Hungary, which said last week that it still wants to purchase more Russian gas, was the only country that voted against the E.U. rationing plan outright Tuesday, according to two European officials.
The objections from southern Europe were different. The argument there was that cutting gas use in Spain and Portugal wouldn’t help Germany and other countries facing shortages.
“Portugal, Spain and France are effectively isolated from the wider European market because of limited connections between Spain and France, and France and the north and east,” Ben McWilliams and Georg Zachmann, two research analysts with the economic policy think tank Bruegel, wrote in an analysis.
There are now only limited options for Spain and other nations to share surplus gas with more-affected E.U. partners — for example, by rerouting Algerian gas from Spain to Italy, which also has a heavy dependence on Russian supplies, they wrote.
“We didn’t really plan for this situation — it wasn’t imagined that Spain all of a sudden becomes a huge exporter,” McWilliams said in an interview.
The agreement reached Tuesday takes into account some of the issues that had been raised by Spain and its allies, granting exemptions to some member states that aren’t well connected to other member states’ gas networks, and to countries that have high storage levels, among other factors.
German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck acknowledged that he couldn’t exclude the possibility of some European countries ignoring the voluntary target set Tuesday but added that he remains optimistic.
“A lot will depend on how cold the winter gets,” he said. “But a lot has already changed.”
Germany has begun to cut consumption wherever it can. Some landlords are rationing hot water, which has been turned off in many public buildings, while lights have been dimmed, and public fountains lie still.
Habeck said his ministry has been “overrun with ideas” on how to cut gas consumption.
“That won’t be different in other countries,” he hypothesized.
Ariès reported from Brussels. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.