BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union has shown strong unity in its standoff with Russia over its war in Ukraine, but EU leaders lack that common ground as they head to a summit Thursday to seek joint measures to contain an energy crisis that has already crippled their economy and threatens to spread trouble among the bloc’s 450 million people this winter.
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. Now EU leaders will seek to increasingly pool their gas purchases and set a temporary price cap to ensure the overheated energy market doesn’t come back to haunt them.
The 27-nation bloc has hit Russia with a series of economic sanctions since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by shutting down pipelines that were sending abundant oil and gas to fuel industry in much of the EU.
“Russia systematically tried to blackmail us with energy,” said the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Most EU leaders have vowed to stay the course in the standoff with Putin. But Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to be a spoiler at the energy summit, contradicting most leaders by saying EU sanctions against Russia primarily harm EU citizens, not Putin.
In addition, finding a common response to Europe’s energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine is proving to be a difficult task. The two-day summit, said host Charles Michel, “will be difficult.”
Many EU countries are ready to accept the proposal to cap natural gas prices, but Germany and the Netherlands have raised major questions about it.
A senior German official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, was adamant about Germany’s opposition to the gas cap. The official argued that “artificial interventions in the market could have negative consequences” both on the availability of natural gas and on incentives for governments and consumers to conserve it. The Dutch comments went the same way.
“Ships go where the best price is,” the official said. “Those who are mobile in world markets and flexible … have alternatives.”
A senior EU official agreed, saying “we don’t want to see all LNG (liquefied natural gas) ships going to China.”
A plan for the EU to combine joint gas purchases and measures to improve solidarity with EU countries most hurt by rising energy prices is expected to gain much more support, diplomats say.
Russia has increasingly relied on drone attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid and civilian infrastructure and sowed panic with strikes on Ukrainian cities, tactics von der Leyen called “war crimes” and “pure terror” on Wednesday. Diplomats are already assessing the new sanctions to come.
But Orban’s friendship with the Kremlin, however, makes life more difficult. Although previous EU sanctions targeting Russia have all been approved, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep Orban by agreeing to exemptions.
“The failed sanctions in Brussels are already an almost unbearable burden. We call for a review of the war sanctions policy,” Orban wrote on Wednesday, throwing down the political gauntlet to his colleagues.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.
Follow all AP stories on the impact of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.