Europe’s Coming Big Freeze
I don’t think many Americans appreciate just how tense and tenuous, how very touch and go the energy situation in Europe is right now.
For months, as news of the Ukraine war receded a bit, it was possible to follow the energy story unfolding across the Atlantic and still assume an uncomfortable but familiar-enough winter in Europe, characterized primarily by high prices.
In recent weeks, the prospects have begun to look darker. In early August the European Union approved a request that member states reduce gas consumption by 15 percent — quite a large request and one that several initially balked at. In Spain, facing record-breaking heat wave after record-breaking heat wave at the height of the country’s tourist season, the government announced restrictions on commercial air-conditioning, which may not be set below 27 degrees Celsius, or about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In France, an Associated Press article said, “urban guerrillas” are taking to the streets, shutting off storefront lights to reduce energy consumption. In the Netherlands a campaign called Flip the Switch is asking residents to limit showers to five minutes and to drop air-conditioning and clothes dryers entirely. Belgium has reversed plans to retire nuclear power plants, and Germany, having ruled out the possibility of such a turnabout in June, is now considering it as well.
More, from an interview he did with two experts:
Walk me through that worst case. How would we get to that kind of crisis?
I think you would see Russia continue to restrict gas exports and maybe cut them off completely to Europe — and a very cold winter. I think a combination of those two things would mean sky-high energy prices. But there’s a lot of other sources of uncertainty and risk. It’s not just high prices. There comes a certain point where there’s just not enough molecules to do all the work that gas needs to do. And governments will have to ration energy supplies and decide what’s important.
They go on to talk about collapsing markets and governments having to seize energy supplies to make sure people don't freeze. This could mean states having to choose to shut down industries, and more. Seriously, read the whole thing. And oh look: just reported that Britain is preparing for rolling blackouts in January.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has been warning for months now that Europe's unqualified support for Ukraine is unsustainable, because so much of the continent depends on Russian gas -- especially Germany, the engine for the entire European economy. (Orban's country is also heavily reliant on Russian gas.) In his controversial speech in Transylvania, the West stupidly obsessed over his unwise "mixed-race" remarks, but these observations about the war and the coming winter were spot on, and far more important:
Within this our situation – Europe’s situation – is doubly difficult. This is the reason that the United States has the strategy that it has. The year 2013 is one that has not been noted or written down anywhere by anyone. But this was the year in which the Americans launched new technologies for extracting raw materials and energy – for simplicity’s sake, let us call it the fracking method of energy extraction. They immediately announced a new US security policy doctrine. I quote from it, it runs as follows. This new technology, they said, would put them in a stronger position to pursue and achieve their international security objectives. In other words, America made no secret of the fact that it would use energy as a foreign policy weapon. The fact that others are being accused of this should not deceive us. [Note: He's referring to Western criticism of Putin for using Russian energy supplies as a foreign policy weapon. He's calling out Western hypocrisy -- RD]
It follows from this that the Americans are pursuing a bolder sanctions policy, as we are seeing in the shadow of the current Russo-Ukrainian war; and they have set about strongly encouraging their allies – in other words us – to buy supplies from them. And it is working: the Americans are able to impose their will because they are not dependent on energy from others; they are able to exert hostile pressure because they control the financial networks – let’s call them swift for simplicity – for sanctions policy; and they are also able to exert friendly pressure, meaning that they can persuade their allies to buy from them. [Note: He's pointing out that it is in America's interest to push Europe to support Ukraine; America will not suffer economically from the loss of Russian gas -- RD]
A weaker version of this policy was seen when President Trump first visited Poland, when he just talked about the need for them to buy “freedom gas”. This US strategy has only now, in 2022, been complemented with the sanctions policy. This is where we are now, and it would not surprise me if uranium, nuclear energy, were soon to be included in this sphere. The Europeans responded to this, we Europeans responded to this, as we did not want to make ourselves dependent on the Americans. It is not nice, but among themselves European politicians say, “We’ve caught a Yank, but he won’t let go of us.” They did not really want to maintain this state of affairs, and so they tried to protect the Russo-German energy axis for as long as possible, so that we could bring Russian energy into Europe. This is now being torn apart by international politics. Then, led by the Germans, we gave another answer: the switch to renewable energy sources. So far this has not worked, however, because the technology is expensive, and therefore so is the energy derived from it. In addition, the switch to this modern technology is not happening automatically, but only under pressure from above, which is exerted on the Member States by the Commission in Brussels – even though this seriously harms the interests of Member States.
In passing, I will say a few words about European values. Here, for example, is the latest proposal from the European Commission, which says that everyone must reduce their natural gas consumption by 15 per cent. I do not see how it will be enforced – although, as I understand it, the past shows us German know-how on that. Furthermore, if this does not produce the desired effect and someone does not have enough gas, it will be taken away from those who do have it. So what the European Commission is doing is not asking the Germans to reverse the shutdown of their last two or three nuclear power plants still in operation, which enable them to produce cheap energy: it is letting them close those power plants down. And if they run out of energy, in some way they will take gas from us who have it, because we have stored it up.
This is exactly what the experts David Wallace-Wells quoted say could happen: EU members turning on each other. This winter could see the breakup of the EU over this crisis. More Orban:
Western strategy in this war is based on four pillars. It is a sensible strategy on paper, and perhaps even has numbers to back it up.
The first was that Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia on its own, but it can do so with training from the Anglo-Saxons and with NATO weapons. That was the first claim.
The second strategic claim was that sanctions would weaken Russia and destabilise the leadership in Moscow.
The third strategic element was that – although they would also affect us – we would be able to deal with the economic consequences of the sanctions, so that they would be hurt more and we would be hurt less.
And the fourth strategic consideration was that the world would line up behind us, because we were in the right.
As a result of this excellent strategy, however, today the situation is that we are sitting in a car with four flat tyres. It is absolutely clear that the war cannot be won like this. The Ukrainians will never win a war against Russia with American training and weapons. This is simply because the Russian army has asymmetric superiority.
The second fact that we must face up to is that the sanctions are not destabilising Moscow.
The third is that Europe is in trouble: economic trouble, but also political trouble, with governments falling like dominoes. Just since the outbreak of the war, the British, the Italian, the Bulgarian and the Estonian governments have fallen. And autumn is still ahead of us. The big price rise came in June, when energy prices doubled. The effects of this on people’s lives, which are creating discontent, are only just beginning to arrive, and we have already lost four governments.
He goes on to say that the world is not standing with the West against Russia.
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What Orban is warning about in the final lines I quoted is the prospect of mass political instability, even civil unrest, if Europeans suffer power cuts this winter, and can't keep warm -- that, and if their economies collapse because governments have to ration energy, shutting down industries to keep civilians from freezing. This is not an abstract concern! This could be months away! But Washington and European capitals monomaniacally continue to support the Ukraine war, even though it threatens to destroy Europe's economies, and may bring down governments, even the EU itself. I was talking to someone the other day who told me that a lot of Europeans are not going to feel a bit sorry for the Germans, given how hard the Germans treated them in the 2008 debt crisis. Nobody made Germany shut down its nuclear power plants, and grow dependent on Russian gas. That was Merkel's deal. She will be known, in the end, for inviting a million asylum seekers into the country, and making Germany dependent on Russian gas, giving Putin the power to immiserate Europe.
If Europe goes down economically because of this, there's no reason at all to think America will be unscathed, given how much trade takes place between Europe and the US. Viktor Orban is going to be vindicated by events this winter -- but it will be a Pyrrhic vindication, because of the extraordinary pain and destruction the arrogance and short-sightedness of Western leaders will have brought upon European peoples.
It is very hard for many of us, especially Americans, to think realistically about all this. Russia was wrong to invade Ukraine -- most of us agree! -- and therefore it must be forced out of Ukraine. This is magical thinking -- the same kind of magical thinking that led a lot of us (I'm guilty as charged) to believe that sufficient application of American military and economic power, plus American resolve, could turn Iraq into a liberal democracy, and a beacon of light for the Middle East. Now look. The same kind of naive idealism is about to wreck Europe. None of this makes Putin a hero any more than Saddam Hussein was. But the real world doesn't work like comic books.