BRUSSELS — European leaders meeting in Brussels this week were eager to focus on granting Ukraine E.U. candidate status, but have also had to address a pressing problem linked to the war: Russia has slowly been turning off the gas tap.
The tapering of gas to Germany in recent days has forced the country, Europe’s economic engine, to escalate its energy emergency protocol and urge Germans to save power. The next step is rationing.
E.U. leaders on Friday asked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, to come up with policy proposals to collectively handle the possibility that Russia, using Europe’s enduring dependence on its gas supplies to inflict pain on Ukraine’s supporters, could further reduce the gas flow or even cut off countries completely.
“We have seen the pattern not only of that last weeks and months, but looking back in hindsight, also the pattern of last year, when you look at Gazprom filling the storage — or I should say not filling the storage, because last year they were at a 10 years low,” the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Friday.
“Now it’s 12 member states that have either been totally cut off or partially,” she added.
Ms. von der Leyen said she would ask her experts to propose an emergency plan to tackle possible shortages going into the winter. The commission has already promoted joint purchasing and storing of gas by E.U. members as a safety measure, should one nation get disconnected. After gas supplies were cut off to Bulgaria, for example, Greece stepped up to help supply its neighbor and fellow E.U. member.
But if Russia decides to hurt Europe for its support of Ukraine by further slashing supplies from its energy giant, Gazprom, it is far from clear that such ad hoc solidarity would work in the winter, when the bloc’s energy demands are much higher.
The E.U. has imposed sanctions on Russian fossil fuels, including a broad ban on Russian oil imports that will come into effect at the end of the year. But it has not been able to do the same with Russian gas, on which it is hugely reliant, because it has not yet lined up sufficient alternatives. Gas prices, meanwhile, have surged, costing European buyers dearly and softening the effect of the sanctions on Russia.
And whatever solutions European leaders devise for the growing problem would take effect in months. For now, member states have to tackle possible shortages largely on their own.
Ms. von der Leyen said that she had been asked to present her proposals at the next E.U. leaders’ summit in October, and that she expected her staff to finish drafting them in September.
In the meantime, she urged people to use less power.
“We should not only replace the gas, but also always take the opportunity of the energy savings. I cannot emphasize that enough,” she said, adding that Europeans could save greatly if they turned down their air-conditioners in the summer and their heaters as the temperature drops.
Gas is not the only urgent question facing world leaders. Diplomats also gathered in Berlin on Friday, ahead of a G-7 summit in Germany on Sunday, to discuss the growing global food crisis set off by the inability of Ukraine to export its grain. Earlier this week, the United Nations said that the war had pushed tens of millions of people into food insecurity.
Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, welcomed Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi di Maio; and other officials to discuss possible solutions.
Before the war, Ukraine exported millions of metric tons of grain monthly, mostly via seaports that are now blockaded. Officials weighed the possibility of moving the grain by land, a far slower and more complicated endeavor.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr. Blinken said that while the food crisis would continue for some time, it was important to not let Russia get away with violating fundamental human rights of the Ukrainian people.