EU energy ministers reached an agreement Tuesday to alleviate the looming energy shortage by reducing natural gas consumption by 15 percent from this August through the end of March 2023. The Baltic states were granted an exception should they be disconnected from the electricity grid by Russia.
The regulation on coordinated demand reduction measures for natural gas was approved by member states' energy ministers, in Brussels on Tuesday.
Under the agreement, all 27 member states of the EU will reduce their gas consumption by 15 percent compared with that of the previous five years. Decisions regarding measures for achieving this goal will be left up to each individual member state.
"Today, the EU has taken a decisive step to face down the threat of a full gas disruption by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. "I strongly welcome the endorsement by Council of the council regulation on coordinated demand reduction measures for gas."
The Commission president highlighted the possibility of Member States declaring a state of EU alert, triggering compulsory gas consumption reductions across member states. This provides a strong signal that the EU will do whatever it takes to ensure its security of supply and protect its consumers, including household and business consumers.
Exception granted for Baltic states
One of the six exemptions granted was for Estonia and the Baltic states in case Russia suddenly disconnects them from the BRELL electricity grid before the expected 2024 deadline.
In this case, in order to maintain the frequency, the countries will need to use gas-powered plants and they will be unable to meet the reduction target.
"If Russia decides to disconnect them, they should be able to use all options to keep their electricity grid working," said Josef Sikela, the Czech Republic's Minister for Industry and Trade, who chaired the meeting as part of the Commission's rotating presidency.
Energy commissioner Kadri Simson, who is Estonia's commissioner, said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon that she was pleased a political agreement had been reached which has broad support.
The agreement sends clear signs to the market, EU citizens and to those who wish for EU disunity, Simson said.
"The most crucial outcome is that we will start saving gas now and that we have a blueprint to act together, in a coordinated way, if the situation worsens," She told reporters.
"Reducing gas demand proactively allows us to avoid rushed or unilateral decisions when it is too late. It will make it possible to plan the savings in the most efficient way, minimizing the impact on our people and businesses. The impact on the GDP will be significantly smaller if we start saving now and don't wait until Russia forces us to do so."
She called the political agreement "remarkable" especially as it was achieved in less than a week.
The discussions were "serious but constructive", she said, noting the 27 states were all starting from different places.
"Solidarity is necessary but it works best when it recognizes that circumstances of member states vary widely," she said.
Countries united except Hungary
Other Member States were sympathetic to Estonia's situation when discussing an exemption, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) said on Tuesday.
The minister said reaching an overall agreement was more difficult for some Member States than others. "But fortunately, everyone made an effort to show solidarity. Only Hungary dissented," she said.
Speaking about the Baltic states' exception, Sikkut said: "But this exception is for an exceptional situation and we hope that it will not materialize. If it really happens that Russia unilaterally disconnects us from its electricity grid and we need to quickly synchronize ourselves with Western Europe, it will not be possible to do this without gas power stations in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania."
If this happens, the countries will not be able to meet the 15 percent reduction, she said.
"Other countries showed understanding that yes, it's an unlikely event, but if it were to happen, it would be possible to grant an exception to the mandatory goal," said Sikkut.
The SDE politicians said Estonia, which has already seen its consumption drop 16 percent compared to its five-year gas consumption average, would have supported a bigger reduction.
Editor's note: This article was updated to add comments from Kadri Simson and Riina Sikkut.
Editor: Aili Vahtla, Helen Wright