EU leaders united against Russia, divided over energy summit

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union has shown rock-solid unity in confronting Russia over its war in Ukraine, but EU leaders lack that common purpose heading into Thursday’s summit to seek joint measures to contain an energy crisis that has already dented their economy and threatens to spread hardship among the bloc’s 450 million people this winter.

Natural gas prices spiraled out of control over the summer as EU nations sought to outbid one another to fill up their reserves for winter. Now EU leaders will seek to increasingly pool their purchases of gas and set a temporary price cap to make sure an overheated energy market does not return to haunt them again.

The 27-nation bloc hit Russia with a series of economic sanctions since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded by choking off pipelines that used to send plentiful oil and gas to stoke the wheels of industry across much of the EU.

“Russia has systemically tried to blackmail us through energy,” said EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Most EU leaders have vowed to stay the course in the standoff with Putin. But authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is bent on being a spoiler at the energy summit, contradicting most leaders by saying that the EU sanctions on Russia primarily hurt EU citizens, not Putin.

In addition, finding a common answer to Europe’s energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine is proving to be a tall order. The two-day summit, said host Charles Michel, “will be difficult.”

Many EU nations are ready to embrace a proposal to cap natural gas prices, but Germany and the Netherlands have raised major issues about that.

A senior German official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, was adamant about Germany’s opposition to the gas cap. The official claimed that “market interventions of an artificial nature could have negative consequences” on both the availability of natural gas and on incentives for governments and consumers to save it. Dutch comments have gone the same way.

“Ships sail to where the best price is,” the official said. “Those who are mobile on the world markets and are flexible … have alternatives.”

A senior EU official concurred, saying “we don’t want to see all LNG (liquid natural gas) ships heading to China.”

A plan for the EU to pool joint purchases of gas and measures to improve solidarity with EU nations most hurt by the spiraling energy prices were expected to receive much more support, diplomats said.

Russia is increasingly relying on drone strikes against Ukraine’s energy grid and civilian infrastructure and sowing panic with hits on Ukrainian cities, tactics that von der Leyen called “war crimes” and “pure terror” on Wednesday. Diplomats are already assessing more sanctions to come.

But Orban’s perceived friendliness toward the Kremlin, however, makes life tougher. Even though the previous EU sanctions targeting Russia have been approved all together, it has increasingly become difficult to keep Orban on board by agreeing to exemptions.

“The failed sanctions in Brussels are already an almost unbearable burden. We will urge the reconsideration of the war sanctions policy,” Orban wrote Wednesday, throwing down a political gauntlet to his colleagues.

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.

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