Gas Crisis: Between Optimism and Fear - Politics

When institutions get nervous about a crisis, they often start producing papers with proposed solutions. No authority wants to give the impression that it is doing nothing. When politicians get nervous about a crisis, they often start pointing at others. No one wants to end up being held responsible for something going wrong.

In this respect, it is probably proof of the seriousness of the situation that there has been no lack of position papers in Brussels over the past few days on how Europe can protect its citizens and companies from the rapidly increasing electricity and gas prices. However, there was just as little lack of blame. Above all, the crisis has caused a power struggle to flare up again - that between the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyenand the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

Michel started a week ago. In an interview, he accused the Commission - and thus de facto von der Leyen - of having overslept the dramatic social consequences of the energy crisis. The Commission dealt with issues such as saving energy and the filling level of the gas storage tanks. But the authority took care of the price explosion, which is a "huge, huge problem" for many people and companies, too late, said Michel. And that despite the fact that the EU governments, whose representative he is in Brussels, have been asking for suggestions on how to remedy the situation for months.

Von der Leyen did not react publicly to the criticism - which of course does not mean that the Council President's attack was not noticed and was considered inappropriate, if not politically harmful. The fact that a dispute broke out between the leading EU representatives in the middle of such a crisis was probably only of use to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said von der Leyen's environment, shaking their heads.

The dislike of the two burdens the cooperation

Now people in Brussels are used to the fact that von der Leyen and Michel don't like each other. This was already evident during the unsuccessful joint visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in April 2021, when von der Leyen was not offered a chair, but Michel sat down on his without hesitation. The dislike between the two is also straining cooperation between the Commission and the Council, say people familiar with Brussels.

But in this case the dissent seems to go beyond personal animosity, as well as the normal competition between the two most powerful EU authorities. Talking to officials at the institutions that run the former German minister and former Belgian prime minister, it becomes clear that their perspectives on the energy crisis are quite different.

So one can get the impression that there are officials in the Commission who see the crisis as an opportunity and high gas and oil prices as a way to accelerate Europe's transition to renewable energy. At least that's an aspect that even in the recent past was prominent in von der Leyen's speeches. "Ultimately, tapping into green energy sources faster is the best way to move away from fossil fuels Russia to become independent," said the President of the Commission, for example, at a conference at the end of August. Then she praised how many billions the EU is investing in the expansion of renewables.

That's not wrong. But it's also quite long term. In any case, Europe's dependence on Russian gas is having a bitter impact in the short term. Von der Leyen's speeches therefore contrasted sharply with the somber statements of other European politicians such as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who warned of "popular uprisings" over high heating bills, or Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who recently reminded his compatriots of "five to ten difficult winters " agreed.

The EU Parliament is also pushing for Europe to cushion the social consequences of the energy crisis and bring electricity and gas prices back down to a tolerable level. "Everyone who has an oven, from the baker to the steelworks, is currently considering whether they can afford to turn it on," says SPD MEP Jens Geier. "There has to be countermeasures now." The high energy costs are "no longer a price signal for green energy, but we are facing catastrophe".

"Doing nothing is not an option"

Hit that notch Charles Michael during his interview - just to shake up the Commission, not to meet von der Leyen in person, as the European Council says. A council official says there are many capable people working at the Commission in Brussels. But sometimes these people are a bit removed from the reality of life of normal citizens in the rest of Europe. But EU governments sensed their citizens' fears of priceless energy very directly, which in some countries is already turning into anger and protests, says this official. "The house is on fire. Consumers are being hit hard, businesses are being hit hard. This is the worst crisis we've had in decades. Doing nothing is not an option."

In the Commission, the criticism that the President is doing nothing is rejected. And even uninvolved observers in Brussels point out that von der Leyen is likely to coordinate closely and directly with the EU governments, especially with Berlin. It's possible that Michel didn't notice anything.

But it is also a fact that the President of the Commission changed her tone after the Michel interview. She still talks a lot about the green energy of the future. But when she presented her proposals for fighting the energy crisis in the middle of the week, she also spoke about "astronomical electricity prices" and "vulnerable households and companies" that the EU must help. Ursula von der Leyen suddenly sounded almost as worried as Charles Michel.

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