A Perfect Storm Perfected: EU Battles String of Calamities

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen

It’s about the only thing missing from a world in turmoil: France going haywire and off the rails. The solid showing of Marine Le Pen at last Sunday’s polls gives plenty of cause for concern. More moderate in her policy proposals and promises than five years ago, Ms Le Pen may no longer seek to extract her country from the European Union, she now merely aims to undermine it. Her pledge to reinstate the primacy of French national law contains echoes of Poland’s thus far frustrated attempts to assert the supremacy of its own laws over those of the EU and, in the process, ditch several European core values such as an independent judiciary and a pluriform free press.

Without providing too many details, Ms Le Pen called for a ‘Europe of Nations’ which, presumably, implies a diminished role for Brussels. Former Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz is all in favour and said such a loosely bound ensemble of states would likely show more respect for the ‘cultural identity’ of individual nation states – by which he seems to mean the freedom to reinterpret the rule of law.

Tone deaf to the mood prevailing in much of Europe, Ms Le Pen repeatedly said that Russia “could become an ally of France again” after the war ends. She also called on NATO to promote a rapprochement with Moscow “after the war.”

Dissonant Concert

Unwittingly or otherwise, Ms Le Pen seems to long for a return to the 19th century Concert of Nations – the grand conspiracy between Europe’s great powers that sought to establish carefully balanced alliances and carve up the continent into well-defined spheres of influence. Concert diplomacy, celebrated in a great number of ‘congresses’ staring in Vienna (1814-15), sought to ensure continental stability but ended up setting the stage for the world wars that followed.

Earlier this week, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn repeated in public words usually only spoken behind closed doors when he said that the French must prevent Ms Le Pen from gaining power: “Her victory would not only mean a breakaway from the core values of the EU, but it would also totally change the union’s course.”

One cannot help but wonder how many storms need to converge for the EU to buckle and succumb to outside pressure. So far, the union has survived Brexit, Corona, Trump, and a Hungarian-Polish revolt plus a refugee crisis and a financial meltdown, the latter two sparked by arguably misguided US policies. The succession of calamities has arguably strengthened the union’s resolve and deepened cooperation between its core members. However, a derailing of France, at the same time when a shooting war involving a major trade partner is destabilizing the EU’s eastern fringe and economy, is possibly just too much for Brussels to bear.

Germany Squeezed

Against this disconcerting backdrop, pressure is mounting on Germany to cut off Russian oil and natural gas supplies in support of Ukraine. Five German economic research institutes are unanimous in their conclusion that without oil and natural gas imports from Russia the country’s GDP is likely to suffer a contraction of 2% or more next year. According to numbers from the Kiel Institute of World Economics, an estimated 400,000 jobs would be lost as well. However, a YouGov poll found that, even so, 54% of Germans queried supported a Russian energy boycott.

The ECB has calculated that a suspension of energy imports from Russia may knock 1.4 percentage points off the 3.7% eurozone GDP growth forecasted for 2022. Experts agree that Germany, which imports 60% of its energy needs, may find other sources for its oil and coal requirements but not for natural gas – mainly used for household and industrial heating and electricity generation. A switch to liquefied natural gas (LNG) is hampered by the lack of infrastructure. Germany has no LNG terminals or regasification facilities.

Plans are underway for a large-scale LNG storage and regasification plant in Wilhelmshaven, but its completion is likely to take four years and will only add about 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) to capacity – or 9% of domestic demand. Several companies have proposed building modular ‘jettyless’ LNG terminals which take about 12 months to become operational. These floating units attach to the side of gas carriers and pump their cargo via cryogenic floating hoses to onshore regasification plants.

The urgent need to wean Germany – and Europe – off energy imports from Russia is almost self-evident given the long string of atrocities committed by the country’s armed forces in Ukraine. Russia seems lost and unable to redeem itself for a generation or longer.

Last year, EU member states imported €99bn worth of coal, oil, and natural gas from the country. Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has paid some €35 billion for hydrocarbon imports from Russia – ready cash to help sustain the economy and the war machine.

Orban’s Gambit

A 10-point plan proposed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) concludes that German imports of natural gas can be cut by a third to slightly less than 100 bcm within a year and without running afoul of the EU’s green agenda. However, the plan – at best an exercise in wishful thinking – also includes an appeal to households to ‘temporarily’ lower their thermostats by one degree – a measure that can EU reduce gas use by 10 bcm annually.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has assured the EU that his government is working hard to find alternative sources of energy whilst it still refuses to keep its remaining nuclear power plants open. Officials indicated that the country may be ready to join an oil embargo later this year.

Apart from practical considerations there is also a political dimension to a ban of Russian oil and gas: the reinvigorated government of Viktor Orban in Hungary indicated it considers any measures targeting Russia’s oil and gas experts a ‘red line’, effectively scuppering a sanctions regime that requires unanimity amongst the bloc’s 27 member states. In Brussels, however, the possibility of a Hungarian veto is not often entertained with most diplomats and watchers agreeing that such a shameful move would almost instantly trigger a host of punitive measures up to and including membership suspension over unrelated irritants such as a muzzling of the free press and attacks on the independent judiciary. The EU lacks a mechanism to expel member states.

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