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Southern rebellion threatens to sink EU gas rationing plan

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Move over, Germany — this time the south has the upper hand.

A group of European Union countries mainly from the south has already shot down Brussels’ bid to grant itself the power to ration gas around the bloc less than 24 hours after the debut of the proposal Wednesday.

The emergency measure — widely perceived as being designed to save Berlin should its gas link to Russia, the Nord Stream pipeline, stop operating — would allow the EU executive to impose a mandatory 15 percent cut in gas consumption from August to May. Such action could be “triggered at any moment,” should scarce supplies make sharing necessary among EU neighbors.

But ministers in Poland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Greece have already emphatically said “no” to the proposed power grab and binding gas consumption reductions, while three EU diplomats confirmed there are currently not enough votes to pass the new rules. Approval requires a qualified majority — 15 countries representing 65 percent of the bloc’s population. Individual vetoes are not allowed under the controversial emergency procedure.

Hungary has taken a step further, announcing it has no intention of letting any gas leave its borders beginning next month. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó actually boarded a flight to Moscow on Thursday in a bid to buy more Russian supplies while it’s still possible.

EU energy ministers are set to discuss the proposal and looming winter gas crisis when they meet next Tuesday, but by that point, the Commission’s proposal could already be a lost cause.

For once, that means Germany may not get its way.

Geographical vote splits are nothing new in the Brussels bubble. But unlike previous spats over economic aid — pitting frugal Nordics and northwesterners against a southeastern bloc in need of funds — this time it’s the EU periphery with access to non-Russian gas that is unwilling to throw Germany a lifeline.

Leaders have been girding for a possible shutdown of Russian gas deliveries, after 12 EU countries were hit with supply reductions or outright disconnections in recent weeks. But so far, that’s not enough to convince capitals to give up control over energy usage at home.

“This is really Mission Impossible stuff – even Tom Cruise couldn’t get it passed now,” said an EU diplomat from a country in favor of the measure.

German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck on Thursday criticized the countries unwilling to get on board.

“We have to save energy in Europe, and above all gas,” Habeck said at a press conference. “And that also means that countries that are not directly affected by gas reductions from Russia should help other countries. Otherwise, there would be no European solidarity.”

Many disagree, not least in Athens — which has bitter memories of demanding financial solidarity from Germany during the 2015 debt crisis.

“Let’s say we reduce [gas use] by 15 percent, this does not mean that more gas will go to Germany. It does not mean that there are empty pipelines that could be filled,” Greek Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas said Thursday on local radio. “It is curious how the Commission has made this announcement without serious consultation.”

Spain’s Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera denounced Brussels’ plan as “not the most effective, nor the most efficient, nor the fairest.”

“We are completely against it,” said Portuguese Secretary of State for Energy and Environment João Galamba.

The EU’s island nations are rebelling too, arguing that they aren’t linked up to the core network and thus can’t send precious gas to needy Continental neighbors.

“It should not apply to Cyprus until the island is directly interconnected with the EU’s natural gas network,” a Cypriot official said Thursday.

Skrekas said he and Ribera are co-authoring an opposition letter to be signed by the discontented capitals, which Skrekas said may also include Paris, Rome, Valletta and Bratislava.

Spanish ministry officials confirmed they were in contact with counterparts in Greece, Italy, France and others, but clarified the joint letter would seek alternative solutions to achieve the desired gas savings across the bloc.

“France has not expressed her position,” a French energy ministry spokesperson said. The Italian, Slovakian and Maltese permanent representations to the EU did not respond to requests for comment on claims they were considering signing Greece’s letter.

Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have sided with Germany in favor of the emergency rules. Bulgaria is still analyzing the proposal.

All other EU countries did not respond to an inquiry on their position on the gas cut proposal.

According to the voting rules, even if France is in favor, the emergency proposal will fail if Italy throws its weight behind the publicly opposed countries.

And while several diplomats said Italy isn’t happy with the draft rules, the collapse of the Italian government caused by Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s resignation on Thursday has injected no small measure of chaos into the coalition-building.

“I will speak this evening with the Italian energy minister,” Skrekas said Thursday.

A “no” vote from Italy would send the Commission back to the drawing board on its gas-saving plans — which it would have to redraft quickly if it hopes to secure enough countries’ agreement by next Tuesday’s extraordinary Energy Council meeting and put measures in place before the heating season starts.

Who’s got the power?

While some countries think a 15 percent reduction in gas consumption is already asking too much, the principal bone of contention is that the mandatory trigger can be activated without national consent.

“Everyone in the room dislikes Article 4, the trigger for mandatory targets,” said the diplomat from the country in favor. “The thing that unites everyone is saying this is unacceptable, as the Council needs to be in charge on these kinds of strategy decisions. National parliaments can’t be blindsided on this.”

In an early draft version of the proposal seen by POLITICO, the mandatory cuts would have been activated at the request of at least two countries.

The final proposal — if passed — would require the Commission to consult with EU members, but does not require permission to activate the binding cuts.

Spain’s Ribera decried the fact that Brussels “put forth [its proposal] without a general orientation debate in the European Council, despite the fact that the economic consequences and redistributive impacts are particularly important.”

Polish Climate Minister Anna Moskwa warned “the solidarity mechanism must not lead to a reduction in the energy security of any member state.”

But countries that have already been saving are urging neighbors to follow suit.

“Saving energy is one of the most important measures we can take to reduce our dependence on Russian gas,” Dutch Energy and Climate Minister Rob Jetten told POLITICO. So far the country has managed to reduce energy consumption by a third this year, thanks to a warm winter and a voluntary savings campaign. “The Netherlands fully supports a mandatory energy saving target,” Jetten added.

A Luxembourg ministry official also said their country was pleased that measures targeting energy demand were finally proposed, after initial responses focused on stockpiling supply.

Danish Energy Minister Dan Jørgensen played it cool. “We have been in Denmark for quite some time preparing for this situation,” he told local media. “This is not something that the average Dane will feel from one day to the next.”

Several diplomats and national officials argued that the real objective — saving 45 billion cubic meters of gas, or 15 percent of EU-wide consumption — can be reached in a deal that doesn’t hand over emergency powers to Brussels.

Hans von der Burchard, Giorgio Leali and Paola Tamma contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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