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Global Economy

How far does solidarity go?

Gas shortages – or even just the fear of a possible gas emergency in Europe: All of this is part of the Russian President's arsenal of weapons, says EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. "Putin continues to use energy as a weapon. That's why the Commission is working on a European emergency plan." What is needed is stronger European cooperation: "To ensure that even if the gas supply from Russia is completely disrupted, gas still gets to where it is needed most."

Bilateral agreements already exist

No country can survive a gas stop alone – this is also the credo of Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) and many of his European counterparts. So far, these hopes are mainly based on the solidarity mechanism. In concrete terms, this means that the EU is encouraging its member states to sell gas to neighboring countries in extreme cases.

The concrete implementation – i.e. technical, legal and financial questions – should be regulated by the member states among themselves. Germany, for example, has signed solidarity agreements with Denmark and Austria and is interested in others, for example with the Czech Republic, Poland and France.

Merely passing on gas will probably not be enough

Overall, the gas storage facilities in the EU are currently about 61.6 percent full; At just under 64 percent, Germany is slightly above average. So it's important and right that this solidarity mechanism exists, says SPD European politician Jens Geier, who sits on the energy committee. But skepticism is appropriate as to the extent to which simply passing on gas really helps to overcome emergencies.

"Even if the European countries have different concerns when it comes to gas supply, we all face the same problem that we have to substitute," says Geier. In this respect, there must be help. But, the Social Democrat qualifies: "I would strongly warn against wanting to rely on that being sufficient in the end."

Urgent need for prioritization

Hence the much-discussed question: How is the extreme case defined? And above all: who will then receive gas as a priority? The European regulation on which the German gas emergency plan is based provides that in extreme cases gas should be passed on to meet the "essential needs" of critical infrastructure – such as health care, basic social services and emergency or security services – as well as the cover private customers.

At this point, Minister Habeck had also announced a need for action in order to also take into account the interests of business and industry. Should the prioritization also be questioned at European level? Yes, says European politician and energy expert Geier: "I understand the worries of the industry very well. There are many companies in Germany that depend on a continuous – i.e. a 24-hour reliable – energy supply. Just think of the aluminum Production. If the gas supply, the energy supply falters, then the whole plant is scrap." This must be taken into account when prioritizing. "I'm very much in favor of evaluating the sector again in its diversity."

Solidarity instead of national reflexes

However, European solidarity in the supply of gas has long since not only depended on the passing on of gas in an emergency. The EU would also like to apply it when shopping. It had already presented an energy procurement platform at the end of last year. This should coordinate the joint gas purchase, make optimal use of the EU's bargaining power and prevent overbidding competition among the EU states.

But the interest of the member states was low, said the EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius at the meeting of environment ministers in Prague. At the moment, the instrument only works to a limited extent: "It's a market instrument – it's good when there's enough supply. But when the supply is scarce, it's not so strong." The EU Commission will further strengthen the instrument with its new emergency plan for security of supply, Sinkevicius promises: "The example shows that it is above all important to be able to react flexibly to the constantly changing situation."

Above all, this contingency plan for security of supply, which the Commission plans to present on July 20, is intended to significantly expand the range of solidarity measures in the EU with a view to the scarce gas. Also a lesson from the mistakes in the early days of the pandemic, emphasized by Commission President von der Leyen: when national reflexes exacerbated the emergency situation.

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