BRUSSELS – European Union leaders struggled to find immediate practical solutions on how to deal with an energy crisis but avoided an open rift between Germany and France on Friday that would have exposed a divided bloc as it confronts Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.
After daylong talks in Brussels dragged well into early Friday, the 27 EU leaders papered over divisions between some of the biggest member states and at least agreed to continue working on ways to impose a natural gas price cap in case of volatility.
French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted his work with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to create a veneer of unity. He said that together with close technical advisers, “I will see Chancellor Scholz in Paris next week so that we can move forward, with our teams, on all the issues.”
Scholz said the main issue was curbing “spikes” in gas trading that may last only a few hours but still send prices excessively upward. He said measures to counter that should be further examined but insisted his skepticism about a flat-out price cap, as some have pushed for, has not changed.
“We don’t think that in a global market we can say unilaterally where the price should be,” he said. “The only thing we can do is to fight against speculation in the market, which is giving wrong information about the real prices. And so this is about spikes, about these episodes of excessive gas prices.”
When the axis between Paris and Berlin is aligned, usually the rest of the EU follows. By Friday afternoon, Macron and others were happy to point to the gas market reaction to the news, with prices down about 11% on the day after rising 13% Thursday, when the outcome of the summit was very much in doubt.
“Our challenge was to ... lower gas and electricity prices and remain united. To me, both goals have been met. I can cite as an evidence the markets’ reaction after our announcement,” Macron said.
Gas prices, however, have steadily fallen since August’s record highs, when EU member states sought to outbid each other to fill up national reserves. Just this week, they fell nearly 10% on Monday and more than 11% on Tuesday.
Diplomats said the execution of the proposals, including the possibility of a price cap, should be first properly assessed by energy ministers next Tuesday and might even need a new summit of leaders in the coming weeks.
“There is a lot of work ahead," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “We are pushing ourselves into uncharted territory, where we don’t have experience yet."
To make sure the runaway cost of gas doesn’t further tank struggling EU economies, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has proposed a system to partly pool gas purchases, which got a lot of support, and offered a compromise that would allow for a price cap correction mechanism to kick in in exceptional circumstances.
Countries like the Netherlands and Germany were loathe to start such market intervention but agreed to study a system that would be failproof and not allow suppliers to stop delivering and go to more lucrative markets.
“It is incredibly complex, but you see that everyone wants to get the gas prize further down, but in a way that we continue to get gas deliveries and that it doesn't move to Asia or Latin America. We need it here, too,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
The traditional driving duo of the EU — Germany and France — were in opposing camps, with Germany expressing doubts and holding off plans for the price cap, while most others want to push on.
Scholz said any dispute was on the method, not the goal. “Prices for gas, for oil, for coal, must sink; electricity prices must sink, and this is something that calls for a joint effort by all of us in Europe,” he said.
EU countries have already agreed to cut demand for gas by 15% over the winter. Plus, European gas storage facilities are already more than 92% full, beating the commitment to reach at least 80% of capacity by November. Countries also vowed to reduce peak demand for electricity by at least 5% as a way of curbing gas-fired power generation.
The question of possible EU gas-price caps has moved steadily up the political agenda for months as the energy squeeze tightened, with 15 countries such as France and Italy pushing for such blunt intervention.
Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.