Europe’s energy crisis will trigger its worst neuroses
IN GEORGE ORWELL’S “1984”, room 101 is where the prisoners face their worst fear. Finding the dominant phobia of Europeans is trickier: what frightens voters on one end of the continent (asylum seekers! deficits! Russia!) may not worry those on the other end. Covid-19 is a contender, as it has made life boring from Dublin to Dubrovnik and beyond. Another is the continent’s current energy crisis. Soaring natural gas prices are sending heating bills skyrocketing, eating up the money Europeans have saved by moping around at home for two years. It is such a global crisis that all parts of the EU will have to face their deepest apprehensions.
As with most nightmares, the origins of the Power Crisis are partly clear and partly mysterious. Europe entered the winter season with low stocks of natural gas, which is used to heat homes and generate electricity. Dwindling domestic power production in places like the Netherlands, soft breezes that failed to spin wind turbines as much as hoped, booming Asian demand sucking gas to the east and maintenance problems at French nuclear power plants resulted in a shortage that few saw coming. When Russia, where pipelines usually originate, did not rush to provide additional supply, prices soared. The average European household faces electricity and gas bills of €1,850 ($2,100) in 2022, up from €1,200 in 2020, according to Bank of America. Fears of winter power cuts have been outweighed by unusually warm weather so far.
But the horror goes beyond the wallet: for many countries, it evokes their worst insecurities. Take proud France, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of EU. Crisis mocks the bloc’s attainment of “strategic autonomy”, President Emmanuel Macron’s latest big idea. That Europe is safe from being ruled by foreign powers seems laudable, but seems further away than ever. What autonomy can Europe claim when it needs Russian largesse to heat its homes? This is a delicate question at a time when Vladimir Putin threatens to invade Ukraine. If America responds with sanctions against Russia, as it has threatened, Europe will suffer the most from the Kremlin’s retribution. No wonder the EU struggling to find a place at the negotiating table.
Worse still, some countries seem optimistic about the current situation. Germany is in the final stages of signing Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will make Europe even more dependent on Russian gas. the EUthe world’s largest economy will face its own anguish. Soaring energy prices will be disastrous for his industry. It also triggered a jump in inflation, the economic indicator Germans fear most. And the new coalition government, divided over Nord Stream 2, has just overseen the closure of three nuclear power plants that could have been useful in keeping the continent’s lights on. The country that sees itself as bringing solutions to Europe is now part of the problem.
Twin dreads keep Northern Europeans awake during their long winter nights. One is that the EU will fail to act on climate change, which is of great concern to voters in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The other is that “their” money will be used to subsidize spendthrift Southerners. The agreement reached in 2020 for a European covid recovery fund perfectly opposed these two fears: frugal northerners agreed to subscribe to a large aid package, on the condition that it finance long-term investments (in particular green) . The gas crisis undermines this system. Governments in countries like Italy and Spain are handing out billions to help households manage higher utility bills, while Polish miners work overtime to mine dirty coal.
Southern Europe’s biggest fear is a hesitant recovery. Greece, Italy and others could enjoy a good run after two crises in just over a decade. Sharp increases in energy bills hurt the poorest countries the most. This also applies to Eastern Europeans. But their room 101 is dominated by Mr Putin, who keeps his hand on the gas tap while demanding that former Warsaw Pact countries stop hosting NATO troops. If winter temperatures don’t send the Baltics shivering, the prospect of a hockey-masked Mr. Putin gunning them down like terrified teenagers surely will.
fear of the pump
The gas price horror movie is the most terrifying for Eurocrats. The causes of the current energy crisis are difficult to boil down to a single factor, says Georg Zachmann of Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. That leaves plenty of room to designate a scapegoat, and a candidate comes to mind. The European Commission regulates EU energy markets (mostly quite reasonably) and made carbon neutral a central part of the bloc’s future (also reasonably). As judicious as his political decisions were, they have aggravated the current crisis. For example, switching to coal to keep prices low is less of an option, as it would require buying expensive EU carbon emission credits.
If Britain had still been in the EU, the likes of Nigel Farage would no doubt have spent the last few months blaming Brussels for rising energy costs. Others might seize on its demagogic mantle. France, homeland of yellow vests, recently experienced popular discontent over energy prices and is gearing up for an election with loud eurobashers. Viktor Orban will also be looking for an element of the EU beating machine as he prepares to face Hungarian voters in April.
European officials know the spotlight could be on them and are not happy about it. Yet anxiety can be healthy when the fear is of being held accountable. Enrage voters EUThe approach to problems is a sign that he is making policies that some people don’t agree with and might want to overturn. It looks a lot like a functioning democracy at pan-European level. Scary, isn’t it? Boo! ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
The return of big government raises questions for Europe (January 8)
How European politicians started to think of themselves as European (January 1)
Emmanuel Macron’s delicate Christmas present (December 18)
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Gas Nightmares”