BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders struggled to find urgent practical solutions on how to deal with the energy crisis but avoided an open rift between Germany and France on Friday that would have exposed the divided bloc facing Russian President Vladimir Putin. because of his war in Ukraine.
After day-long talks in Brussels stretched deep into the night, the 27 EU leaders glossed over divisions among some of the biggest member states and at least agreed to continue working on ways to impose a gas price cap in the event of big price rises.
French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted his work with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to create the beauty of unity after talks that began early Thursday morning. He said that together with close technical advisers, “I will see Chancellor Scholz in Paris next week so that we can move forward, with our teams, on all issues.”
Scholz said the main problem is curbing “surges” in gas trading that can last only a few hours but still cause prices to rise too much. He said that measures to combat this should be further investigated.
“How can we avoid these spikes? There is still a lot of concrete work to be done. But we have to look for ways to contain it, which certainly makes sense,” said Scholz.
When the axis between Paris and Berlin is aligned, the rest of the EU usually follows.
“There is a strong and unanimous shared determination to act together, as Europeans, to achieve three goals: lowering prices, ensuring security of supply and continuing to work to reduce demand,” said summit host Charles Michel, president of the EU Council.
Diplomats said next Tuesday’s energy ministers should first properly assess the implementation of the proposal, including the possibility of price caps, and may even need another summit of leaders in the coming weeks.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “We are pushing ourselves into unknown territory, where we have no experience yet.”
To ensure that the excessive cost of gas would not further reduce the EU economy, the Commission proposed a system for pooling gas purchases and offered a compromise that would allow the correction mechanism to be triggered in exceptional circumstances.
Countries such as the Netherlands and Germany were loathe to initiate such market intervention, but agreed to study a fail-safe system that would not allow suppliers to stop supplying and go to more lucrative markets.
“It’s incredibly complex, but you can see that everybody wants to get the gas award lower, but in a way that we can continue to supply gas and it doesn’t go to Asia or Latin America. And we need it here,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
In addition, leaders are pushing for the creation of a new LNG gas index that would better reflect the market following a drastic cut in pipeline gas imports from Russia.
The divisions were so wide at the start of the summit that the agreement to further explore the plan proposed by the Commission was considered almost an achievement in itself.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the price cap would drive away suppliers. “Capping the price of gas is like going to a bar and telling the bartender you want to pay half price for your beer. That will not happen – he wrote on Twitter.
The EU’s traditional driving duo – Germany and France – have been in opposing camps, with Germany expressing misgivings and delaying plans to cap prices, while most others want to press on.
Scholz said any dispute is about the method, not the goal. “The prices of gas, oil, coal must sink; Electricity prices must go down, and this is something that requires a joint effort from all of us in Europe,” he said.
Natural gas prices spiraled out of control over the summer as EU countries tried to outbid each other to replenish their reserves for the winter. Member countries have already agreed to reduce gas demand by 15% during the winter. They also pledged to fill gas storage facilities to at least 80% capacity by November and — as a way to reduce gas-fired electricity generation — reduce peak electricity demand by at least 5%.
The issue of possible gas price restrictions in the EU has been constantly moving on the political agenda for months as energy pressure intensified, and 15 countries such as France and Italy advocated such a harsh intervention.
At the opening of the summit, the need for strong EU unity in confronting Russia was emphasized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed 27 national leaders via video conference from Kiev, asking for continued help to help his nation overcome the winter.
Russia has increasingly relied on drone attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid and civilian infrastructure and sowed panic with strikes on Ukrainian cities, tactics that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday called “war crimes” and “pure terror.”
Diplomats are already assessing the new sanctions to come. But Orban’s friendship with the Kremlin makes life more difficult. Although previous EU sanctions targeting Russia have been unanimously approved, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep Orban by agreeing to exemptions.
Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.