Putin issues ultimatum to Germany as EU summit exposes bloc’s divide on energy crisis

Energy prices soar and EU poses 'joint gas purchase'

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EU leaders on Thursday struggled to agree on a common response to soaring energy prices, which have exposed familiar rifts over the bloc’s climate change goals and divided countries on whether the price crunch warrants an overhaul of EU energy market rules. Jumping on divisions in the bloc, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the gas crisis and record high prices on the EU’s energy policy.

The Russian leader said he could start supplying natural gas to Europe via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as soon as it gets the green light from Germany.

The pipeline, funded by Kremlin-owned energy giant Gazprom and its European partners, is expected to obtain certification from a German regulator to begin commercial sales of natural gas, though the approval process could take several months.

“If the German regulator hands its clearance for supplies tomorrow, supplies of 17.5 billion cubic metres will start the day after tomorrow,” Putin told a televised forum.

The Swiss-based operator of Nord Stream 2 said on Monday that it had filled the first line of the pipeline with “technical” gas.

Putin said Russia was on track to complete filling the second line of the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline, which runs on the bed of the Baltic Sea to Germany, in the middle to the end of December.

Russia has said Nord Stream 2, which is set to double Moscow’s annual gas export capacity in the Baltic to 110 billion cubic metres, could provide relief to the European gas market, which has been grappling with tight supplies and soaring prices.

The European Commission last week published a “toolbox” outlining the national measures governments can take and said Brussels would look into longer-term options to address price shocks.

EU leaders debated those options on Thursday. Most EU countries have already drawn up emergency action plans to shield consumers, including energy tax cuts and subsidies for poorer households.

Their final summit conclusions invited countries to urgently use the toolbox “to provide short-term relief to the most vulnerable consumers and to support European companies”.

Longer-term measures are more contentious, with countries split over what action the EU should take to shield itself against future price spikes.

In what EU diplomats called a response to a push from the Czech Republic, the summit conclusions were updated late on Thursday to invite the European Commission “to study the functioning of the gas and electricity markets, as well as the EU ETS market, with the help of the European Securities and Markets Authority.”

The Commission should then assess “whether certain trading behaviours require further regulatory action,” the conclusions said.

The surprise rebel was backed by France and Spain as they pushed for structural changes to the energy market.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain also asked the EU to limit financial speculators’ participation in the carbon market, which they say said has helped push CO2 prices to record highs.

Poland also wants Brussels to investigate whether the behaviour of Russia’s Gazprom has stoked European gas price rises.

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The Commission has already agreed to study both issues but has not committed to taking immediate action.

European gas prices have hit record highs as tight supply has collided with economies emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, amid surging CO2 prices and lower-than-expected gas deliveries from Russia.

That has prompted some member states to call for an EU response – with Spain, Italy and Greece proposing a new system of joint gas buying among EU countries to form strategic reserves.

Others, including Germany and the Netherlands, are wary of overhauling EU regulations in response to a short-term crisis.

The Commission said gas prices were expected to stabilise at a lower level by April.

But Spanish leader Pedro Sanchez reacted: “We cannot wait until April for ACER to come up with proposals.”

The tussle over the EU response to the energy price crunch will be picked up at an emergency meeting of EU energy ministers on October 26.

A preparatory note ahead of that meeting said ministers would debate “what further measures at EU and Member State level, including the use of EU financial tools, could be envisaged”.

The price spike has also stoked familiar tensions over the EU’s policies to fight climate change, with Poland calling for Brussels to change or delay some planned green measures.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday dismissed EU climate policy plans as a “utopian fantasy”. That view is at odds with other countries that say high gas prices should speed up Europe’s shift to renewable energy to reduce countries’ exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices.

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