European Union leaders struggled to find immediate practical solutions at their summit Thursday called to grapple with the energy crisis fueled by the war in Ukraine and maintain a united front in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin coercion.
After lengthy talks in Brussels dragged well into the night, the 27 EU leaders could not bridge divisions between some of the biggest member states and failed to impose a gas price cap to counter Russia’s strategy to choke off gas supplies to the bloc at will.
They agreed, however, to keep working to find a compromise based on proposals unveiled earlier this week by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which were discussed in depth and tweaked at the summit.
“Unity and solidarity prevail,” said meeting host Charles Michel, the EU Council president. “Agreed to work on measures to contain energy prices for households and businesses.”
Diplomats said the impact of the proposals should be properly assessed by experts before approval, and leaders insisted any deal would need to take into account their different energy mixes.
“You don’t hop on a train without knowing the destination,” a senior diplomat summed it up. He was not authorized to speak publicly on the discussions, in accordance with EU practice.
To make sure the runaway cost of gas doesn’t further tank struggling EU economies, the Commission has proposed a system to pool buying of gas and offered a compromise that would allow for a correction mechanism to kick in in exceptional circumstances.
In addition, it is pushing for the creation of a new LNG gas index better reflecting the market following the drastic reduction of imports of pipeline gas from Russia.
Divisions were so big at the start of the summit that agreeing on further exploration of the plan proposed by the Commission was seen as almost an achievement in itself.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a price cap would send suppliers away. The “gas price cap is like going to a bar and telling the bartender you want to pay half price for your beer. Not going to happen,” he said on Twitter.
“Our role is to make sure that there is a European unity and that Germany is part of it,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “It is not good either for Germany or Europe that it isolates itself. It is important that on proposals that are the subject of a broad consensus, we can find unanimity.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said any dispute was on the method, not the goal. “Prices for gas, for oil, for coal, must sink; electricity prices must sink, and this is something that calls for a joint effort by all of us in Europe,” he said.
The Netherlands feared that if a price cap was set too high, supplies would simply sail by Europe and go elsewhere. “Everyone wants the gas price to come down, but you want to make sure that gas imports keep coming,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Natural gas prices spiraled out of control over the summer as EU nations sought to outbid one another to fill up their reserves for winter. The member states have already agreed to cut demand for gas by 15% over the winter. They have also committed to filling gas-storage facilities to at least 80% of capacity by November and _ as a way of reducing gas-fired power generation _ to reducing peak demand for electricity by at least 5%.
The question of possible EU gas-price caps has moved steadily up the political agenda for months as the energy squeeze tightened, with 15 countries such as France and Italy pushing for such blunt intervention, without agreeing on the method.
And where Angela Merkel was the soothing voice often brokering a compromise during her 16 years as German chancellor, her successor Scholz is now at the heart of a division in the bloc.
Germany and the Netherlands maintain that market interventions like excessive price caps could hurt both the availability of natural gas and incentives for governments and consumers to save it.
At the opening of the summit, the need for rock-solid EU unity in confronting Russia was highlighted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the 27 national leaders by video conference from Kyiv, asking for continued help to get his nation through the winter.
Russia is increasingly relying on drone strikes against Ukraine’s energy grid and civilian infrastructure and sowing panic with hits on Ukrainian cities, tactics that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “war crimes” and “pure terror” on Wednesday.
Diplomats are already assessing more sanctions to come. But Orban’s perceived friendliness toward the Kremlin makes life tougher. Even though the previous EU sanctions targeting Russia have been approved unanimously, it has increasingly become difficult to keep Orban on board by agreeing to exemptions.
Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.