Emmanuel Macron has announced an austerity plan in order to avoid energy shortages next winter. It won’t be enough.
Vladimir Putin has turned gas into a weapon of war. The theatre of military operations may well be in Ukraine, but the outcome of the conflict is all about the ability of Russia to show resilience against sanctions and of democracies to show resilience in face of the energy crisis. Europe is in the front line, for, at the beginning of hostilities, it depended on Russia for over 40% of its gas. And there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will suspend deliveries of gas in the winter of 2022-2023, as he has begun to do for 12 of the 27 member states of the EU, and as he has signaled by closing Nord Stream 1 on 11th July, using the pretext of maintenance work.
Faced with an increasing number of war crimes carried out by Russian troops, Putin cannot count on sanctions being lightened. Although the USA is out of his reach because it is independent from an energy point of view, by interrupting deliveries of Russian gas to Europe, Putin can create a major crisis in the EU, causing an energy shortage and sending energy prices sky high. Germany is particularly vulnerable and will have to reduce its consumption of gas by at least 20%, but all countries will be affected. The impact of the crisis will extend beyond the energy sector. The effect of a simultaneous fall in production and consumption will cause a recession in the European economy in 2023, and inflation will take off again. Putting coal-fired power stations back into operation – vital in finding substitutes for gas but an ecological scourge – will increase carbon dioxide emissions. From a political standpoint, a worsening energy crisis will trigger populism, particularly in Italy where a high-risk general election is due to take place, with Mario Draghi living on borrowed time. From a strategic standpoint, divisions within the EU will deepen because of competition between the 27 member states for access to energy and energy storage. The same will happen in NATO, because of the imbalance that will occur between the USA – that will benefit from the demand placed on their energy, arms and agriculture – and a much-weakened Europe.
Therefore, it is high time that France and the EU stopped being in denial, and paid regard to the trade war that Russia is waging against them, without strengthening Russia in the Ukrainian conflict or giving it any decisive advantage in its conflict with democracies. The suspension of Russian gas deliveries that is scheduled means not only massive price rises, but also a real shortage of energy, and this will lead to rationing, not only for businesses – for this would cause production to collapse and inflation to rise – but also for households.
France cannot keep to an austerity plan that aims to reduce energy consumption by 10% over two years by mobilizing government agencies and large companies. It has to come up with an emergency energy plan. On the supply side, this means removing all regulatory social and fiscal obstacles in order to maximize production – particularly nuclear power – and to safeguard stocks. On the distribution side, corrective measures will have to be prepared, with the aim of stopping companies from reducing their operations too much, given that the trade deficit is about to exceed €110 billion. On the demand side, a campaign to inform French people of what’s happening must begin immediately, as is the case in Germany, so that energy savings can be made as from this summer.
At the same time, the truth about the cost of energy must gradually be restored, for this is by far the most effective way of regulating its consumption and of reconciling energy security and ecological transition. As a final point, on the European front, it is vital to prioritize cooperation and quickly reform the disastrous organization of the European energy market because, dictated by Germany, it has placed the EU in Vladimir Putin’s hands. General de Gaulle pointed out that “doing nothing means you’re beaten.” This can be applied to the energy war too. The time for words is over: let’s get on with the war, and win it!
(Article published in Le Point, 21st July 2022)