Running on empty: How trust among EU states can survive the energy crisis

Member states’ reactions to the energy crisis could endanger European unity. A mature political response would help the bloc stay united through the coming winter.

Belgium, Brussels, 2022/09/21. Demonstrators hold signs, flags, and balloons during a trade unions demonstration against the rising cost of living and increasing energy prices on a national strike day. Photograph by Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas. Belgique, Bruxelles, 2022/09/21. Des manifestants tiennent des pancartes, des drapeaux, et des balons lors d une manifestation syndicale contre la hausse du cout de la vie et l augmentation des prix de l energie lors d une journee de greve nationale. Photographie de Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas. || Mininum fee EUR 10
Belgium, Brussels, 2022/09/21. Demonstrators hold signs, flags, and balloons during a trade unions demonstration against the rising cost of living and increasing energy prices on a national strike day
Image by picture alliance / Hans Lucas | Valeria Mongelli
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The coming winter could freeze and shatter European sentiment – the shared sense of belonging, mutual trust among European countries, and citizens’ emotional attachment to the idea of Europe.

A particularly cold winter would bring about temporary energy shortages in parts of the continent; these, coupled with high energy prices, could cause social unrest. As a result, European leaders are searching for suppliers other than Russia and are rebuilding their stocks while nervously looking at long-term weather forecasts. Yet member state governments are struggling to find the right balance between cushioning their firms and households from skyrocketing energy prices and incentivising them to reduce consumption. They are also discovering that bringing down international gas prices is easier said than done.

As things stand, the European Union may be heading for a situation in which some wealthier member states opt for a go-it-alone approach, most governments remain wary of asking people for sacrifice, and their citizens resist energy saving measures. This would be a disastrous mix not just for Europe’s capacity to face the energy crisis but also for mutual trust across the continent. Weakened European sentiment could limit the EU’s and governments’ capacity to maintain solidarity with Ukraine and stand up to Russia.

Crises have often given European integration a great jolt forward, as with the covid-19 pandemic, which led member states to issue common debt, finance a generous solidarity fund, and club together to buy vaccines. This time around too, there are prominent advocates for this challenge to lead to ‘more Europe’. For example, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has called for a “genuine energy union”. Yet such parallels risk being misleading. European citizens may feel less amenable to sacrifice than they were during covid. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 78 per cent of people across the EU27 say they have taken some measures to reduce energy consumption and are planning to do so in the future – but falling temperatures will soon test such efforts. Fiscal space is much more limited now than in 2020, due to both the pandemic and rising energy prices. And solidarity today might well need to be more about reducing one’s own energy consumption rather than supporting other countries financially.

European citizens may feel less amenable to sacrifice than they were during covid.

The bigger, uncomfortable truth – to which the EU’s high representative Josep Borrell also referred recently – is that some European governments and institutions share the blame for the continent’s energy difficulties. For example, German imports of Russian gas increased even after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and Berlin did not drop plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline until days before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

This creates plenty of room to criticise European elites (and the EU more broadly) for their past errors. Indeed, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki did just that at last week’s rally of nationalist right parties in Madrid. Such arguments might find fertile ground in the public imagination and limit Brussels’ credibility in offering solutions to the energy crisis.

Three main elements should therefore compose leaders’ response to the coming energy crisis. Their underlying principle is one of demonstrating political leadership and sensitivity to European sentiment.

Firstly, Europe’s decision-makers should focus on achieving better policy coordination among the EU27 – especially when it comes to energy saving incentives, financial support for households and companies, and energy supplies from outside the EU. To achieve this, they should steer EU institutions to rein in their instincts for Europeanisation – unless (as is the case with joint gas purchases) there is a strong rationale for new initiatives led or coordinated from Brussels. But this also requires member states to show openness to cooperation. In early summer Germany called for solidarity, only by late summer to announce a €200 billion national energy emergency plan that caused consternation in member state capitals throughout the bloc. Since then, the German government has set about attempting to address the concerns: providing the detail to show how the proposals would not adversely affect the single market; looking for new ways to curb gas prices; and keeping the door open to new joint EU debt. Still, Berlin’s manoeuvre harmed trust among the member states and further complicated efforts to come up with a joint set of measures to tackle the crisis. They need to find a common language ahead of next week’s European Council meeting, where the key ways to tackle the energy crisis should be decided.

Secondly, any measures will need to comply with the ‘fairness’ criterion, both within member states and among the EU27. Otherwise, trust could be irremediably broken between the countries. For example, some could end up feeling that they and their citizens are going further than others on saving energy, or that their firms are at a disadvantage because of wealthier neighbours’ generous emergency plans. Internally, financial support should target the most vulnerable. And across the EU27 the wealthier member states will need to be mindful of the negative externalities of their actions on other member states. Some sort of financial solidarity within the EU could prove useful – although repurposing unused pandemic recovery funds, rather than negotiating new money, might suffice. Transfers within countries and across the EU should be constructed in a way that, ideally, does not discourage energy saving. National governments and European institutions should also lead by example. It is commendable that the Paris authorities now switch off the Eiffel Tower’s lights early; the EU institutions ought to follow suit, and soon.

Finally, and above all, European governments will need to accept responsibility for communication with their citizens. Blaming “European elites”, as Morawiecki did, is partly justified – but it does not help confront the real crisis. Political leaders will need to reach new heights of persuasiveness and political maturity in explaining to voters that some sacrifice (such as reducing energy consumption and higher energy prices) may be necessary. They will need to endow abstract questions of European unity and security with the same sort of palpable urgency as they did during the pandemic. And if some governments and EU leaders were ready to accept part of the blame for the current hardship, that too would go a long way to showing people that Europe has the capacity to self-correct.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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