European Commission HQ lit with Ukraine flag

View from Brussels: Unbound and untethered

Image credit: European Union 2022

Russia’s war on Ukraine has forced the European Union to rethink quickly how it does business with Moscow. There is already a masterplan to unhook the region from Russian fossil fuels, while another initiative wants to bring Ukraine into the fold.

EU countries import 90 per cent of their fossil gas needs and more than 40 per cent of that is from Russia. As Vladimir Putin continues his internationally-denounced invasion of Ukraine, those imports have become an extremely contentious issue.

The situation has already prompted the German government to nix the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have connected Russian gas to northeast Germany via the Baltic Sea. Berlin is also preparing for the likelihood that Moscow cuts deliveries via the parallel Nord Stream 1 pipe.

According to best estimates and current gas prices, EU countries send Russia more than €600 million every day to cover gas purchases. It does not take a geopolitical expert to see that other economic sanctions on the Kremlin are undermined by this status quo.

On Tuesday, the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – published its plan to cut gas imports drastically and even phase them out “way before 2030”. Rather than banning gas outright, Brussels has outlined how governments should achieve it.

A lot of the weaning off will be done by substituting Russia’s imports for LNG sourced from other countries. EU officials have already made overtures to Azerbaijan, Qatar, North African states and – of course – the United States, which is all too eager to increase its exports.

By the end of 2022, the plan is to water down Russia’s imports by up to two-thirds, with much of the heavy-lifting done by diversification of gas supply. But towards 2030, when climate targets start to bite hard, other technologies are going to bear the brunt.

Although the Commission does not want to tinker yet with its other plan to source 40 per cent of the EU’s energy from renewable sources by 2030, it is urging governments to “front load” deployment of wind and solar power.

Essentially, Brussels does not want countries to get complacent and wait until the second half of the decade to pump serious money into renewables. It has to happen now and funding will be shifted around to make that feasible.

Gas is a big issue when it comes to heating homes and businesses, so the EU wants citizens to turn down their thermostats by 1 degrees Celsius, an act that data crunchers say could save 10 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas.

In 2021, the EU imported 155 bcm from Russia, so the savings cannot be sniffed at.

Under existing plans, the EU wanted to see 30 million energy-efficient heat pumps installed by 2030, which would save around 35 bcm of gas. In another example of “frontloading”, the Commission wants 10 million of those installed over the next five years.

The plan falls short of some expectations, especially those from climate groups which insist that Russia’s breach of international law should prompt a complete move away from fossil fuels, rather than a gradual shift first to other suppliers and then to renewables.

However, many EU prime ministers and presidents have already ruled out that possibility, insisting that their countries are too reliant on gas to ditch it overnight. The ongoing fallout from the Covid pandemic is still playing heavily on many economies, after all.

Leaders meet on Thursday at a high-level summit to consider everything Russia and how to proceed, although much of the technical work is being done by diplomats already.

Closer and closer

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won countless fans around the world for his defiance in the face of Putin’s army and has also scored several political points by championing his country’s EU aspirations even in the midst of conflict.

Zelenskyy issued a formal request for Ukraine to become a candidate country last week and that application is now being assessed by the Commission. It is only the start of what will be an extremely drawn-out and arduous process.

But while full membership of the bloc is not a short-term prospect, one form of integration is nearing completion: Ukraine’s joining of the European energy grid. 

Shortly after the Russians launched their invasion, Ukraine successfully decoupled its power grid from the Russian network and began operating in isolation with no obvious problems. Now the next milestone is full synchronisation.

Planned since 2017 and initially earmarked for 2023, work is now ongoing to link the grids as soon as possible. A number of tests and demo periods will now be skipped.

"Continental Europe TSOs [transmission system operators] are now focused on identifying the key conditions needed to support the electricity supply to Ukraine as a matter of priority," said ENTSO-E, Europe’s network transmission operators group.

It could prove to be a fundamentally important step in Ukraine’s war effort, as linking grids would enable the country to get emergency power from the west if Russian military operations press on and damage electricity systems.

Moldova, which is also fearful about Moscow’s intentions, is also in the process of linking up its grid and has also submitted a request to join the EU as soon as possible.

Vladimir Putin has arguably done more to accelerate European integration over the last month than most Europhile politicians have done in a couple of decades.

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