Gas war comes to Europe with winter just months away

Kremlin announces total suspension of gas supplies to French company Engie

AFP/ODD ANDERSEN  -   Picture of the natural gas reception and distribution facilities on the premises of the pipeline and transmission network operator Gascade in Lubmin

In 2021 the word of the year was vaccine. This year, the new candidate for the top spot could be war. First came Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and then came the rest. Before this event, the world was still experiencing wars, the only difference being that these conflicts were not being fought on European soil. Now, with the war in Ukraine, the word has taken on a different meaning and its consequences as well.

The desolation of the war in human terms is followed by the economic consequences, which are almost on the same level. As summer draws to a close, Europe is preparing for a winter that will be characterised by shortages of one of its most necessary commodities: gas.

AP/KOSTIANTYN LIBEROV - A man cleans a destroyed flat after Russian shelling in Nikopol, Ukraine, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022

Russia has been warning of this for months. Anyone who does not stand with Russia will be declared its enemy. In turn, the European Union, days after the invasion began, launched a marathon campaign to boycott Russian products, including gas. However, aware of its high dependence on gas, Europe had no choice but to continue buying gas from Russia as it sought alternatives.

Time is running out for Europe and Russia knows it. The announcement of its gas cuts to major European countries dependent on its gas, as was the case with Latvia, has now been followed by a three-day cut in German gas, after claiming further maintenance work on the Nord Stream pipeline.

In addition to the German cutback, a new measure has also been added that will hit France's supply. As part of its strategy to leave Europe without gas, the Russian giant Gazprom has announced that it will completely suspend gas supplies to the French group Engie as of Thursday. As justification, Moscow claims lack of payments from Paris, in line with the new Russian measure that dictates that all its buyers will have to pay in roubles.

AFP/ JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN - General view shows the cooling towers of the Cattenom nuclear power plant in eastern France

Engie remains silent and so does the Union. For the moment no new measures have been announced, apart from the recent reform of the electricity market at the beginning of 2023 in what has been seen as "emergency intervention"

This new setback now raises the question of whether France will finally support the construction of the Midcat pipeline, which would connect Spain and France through the Pyrenees mountain range. Despite repeated French refusals, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has come out in favour of this infrastructure, something which, together with the new Russian announcement, could reverse the situation.

PHOTO/SOEREN STACHE via AP - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez make statements during the closed meeting of the German Cabinet in Meseberg Palace

In his latest declarations, the French Minister of Economy, Brune Le Maire, stated that France would reconsider its construction, despite the fact that the request has been years in the making, as a result of which "the Spanish President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, representatives of two countries that are friends of France" having made this request, it is time to "examine it". In this context, the Spanish President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, reiterated that it was necessary to "remember that Spain concentrates 30% of the regasification capacities of the whole of Europe and we cannot use them fully and completely as a result of having a bottleneck".

The reason for the delay in giving the long-awaited green light to this construction stems from the fact that France does not need the gas, or at least did not need it. Now, France produces about 70% of its electricity through its nuclear power plants, and although the European Union will finance it, the reality is that MidCat is not France's priority.

AFP/AFP - Map of the gas pipeline network between Spain and France, which includes the stalled MidCat project

Faced with this complex situation, EU governments reached an agreement a month ago to reduce gas consumption from August this year to March next year. However, when Moscow's gas reduction measures were implemented, they were slightly lower, and now, with the new cuts, the EU is threatening to have to ration more gas through harsher intervention.

The Czech Republic's Minister of Industry, Jozef Sikela, stated that "winter is coming and we don't know how cold it will be, but what we know for sure is that Putin will continue his dirty games by abusing and blackmailing with gas supplies"

REUTERS/DADO RUVIC - A 3D printed natural gas pipeline is placed in front of the Gazprom logo and the Russian flag in this illustration taken on 8 February 2022

Restrictions on gas supplies have already led to a 400% rise in wholesale gas prices since August, which has led to spending approved by governments to tackle the crisis multiplying by millions and inflation running rampant. 

For some European countries, with the cold season just weeks away, the measures Europe is taking may be insufficient, not because they are ineffective, but because the days are passing and Russia - in addition to the nuclear button - has the gas switch in its power, a resource that the Union accuses the Kremlin of using as a "weapon of war". The war is being waged in Ukraine, but its most direct consequences are felt most directly in Europe. Winter is approaching and gas is becoming scarce, while new pipeline construction projects are still not coming to fruition. August is coming to an end and with it the need for Europe to have enough gas on the eve of winter in a new situation for the Union, which we do not know how it will develop.