ROME – Italian Premier Mario Draghi hosted leaders from three fellow Mediterranean countries Friday to push for an urgent, common European response to the energy crisis, which has been worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is threatening the economic recovery of small businesses and ordinary citizens.
The prime ministers of Spain and Portugal participated in person in the meeting in Rome, while Greece’s leader, who has tested positive for COVID-19, joined by a video hookup from Athens.
In statements to reporters following their discussions, the four leaders said they agreed on the pressing need for a European Union-wide response on rising energy prices emerge from next week's European Council meeting in Brussels.
Prices for gas and electricity were already soaring in Europe and elsewhere even before Russia began the war against its neighbor last month.
Draghi has been pushing for EU-wide stockpiling of energy resources plus a deal for all 27 countries in the bloc to cap gas prices.
“The invasion of Ukraine by Russia opened up a period of strong volatility for the markets for raw materials, gas and oil,” which were already high in price before the war, Draghi said. “We must intervene right away. We (the four leaders) all have the impression that something substantial, significant must be done right away” by all EU members.
“Europe reacted united to the invasion. Now it must find the same determination and unity” on energy, the Italian premier said. “A common market in energy is beneficial to all.”
He said the four discussed a price cap on gas but did not elaborate.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the four Mediterranean leaders “commit ourselves to diversifying energy sources as fast as possible.” And action is needed immediately on prices, Sanchez said, noting that “small businesses and citizens can't bear” the soaring costs of gas and electricity.
“All the European countries are hit by this energy crisis, that was provoked by one person, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin," Sanchez said. “So we must have a European response.”
Portuguese Premier Antonio Costa said next week's meeting in Brussels "must be a European Council of immediate decisions,'' so that Europe's recovery, after the damage dealt by the pandemic, isn't interrupted.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sounded a warning that high prices for heating and electricity might lead to “re-awakening the nightmare of populism” on the European continent.
Spain deployed more than 23,000 police officers amid a truckers’ strike Friday and farmers in France and Greece were snarling traffic with their protests over high energy prices.
Meanwhile, European nations are taking measures to ease the burden of skyrocketing energy prices on consumers and businesses.
After a Cabinet meeting Friday evening, Draghi announced that gasoline will cost 25 euro cents less per liter ($1.06 less per gallon) through the end of April. A temporary lowering of excise taxes will make that possible.
In addition, as part of a 4.4 billion-euro energy price relief package, now 5.2 million low-income families in Italy will be eligible for caps on the costs of their energy bills.
“We’re taking important measures prompted by the need to give a response to the consequences of the war,’’ Draghi said. “We are intervening to help citizens and business,” including the most exposed sectors.
Most of the assistance will be funded by taxing energy companies on the “extraordinary profits they are making,’’ the premier said.
The four prime ministers also discussed security concerns in Friday's talks. U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Brussels next week for talks with leaders of NATO member countries as well as leaders gathered for the European Council.
“If there is a lesson that Putin gave us with his unjust and unjustifiable war it is that peace must be defended,” Sanchez said. The two meetings in Brussels next week, the Spanish leader said, could help develop a “strategic compass” helpful for integrating European defense with NATO's defense.
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