BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union energy ministers failed yet again to overcome their deep differences Tuesday on a natural gas price cap that many hope would make utility bills cheaper so people can stay a little warmer during harsh winter days — if not this year, then later.
The ministers emerged from their fifth emergency meeting emptyhanded because they cannot come to agreement on a maximum ceiling to pay for gas due to fear that global suppliers will simply bypass Europe when others offer more money.
“There was lots of progress but no final breakthrough yet,” said German minister Robert Habeck.
“We were so close today,” said Czech Industry Minister Jozef Sikela, adding the ministers would meet again next Monday. “There will be only one open issue for the discussion on Monday and this is the price level triggering the mechanism” — which was the core dispute from the start.
Sikela said no one asked for the issue to be taken up at Thursday’s summit of EU leaders.
The 27 nations have stuck together through eight rounds of sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine and energy-saving measures to avoid shortages of the fuel used to generate electricity, heat homes and power factories. But they cannot close a deal on setting a complicated price cap that had been promised in October as a way to reduce energy bills that have soared because of Russia’s invasion.
“Now we have to get together and show unity is not an empty word,” said Sikela, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting. One side is demanding a cap to push down gas prices for households — including Greece, Spain, Belgium, France and Poland — while nations like Germany and the Netherlands are insisting supplies are at risk if a cap stops EU countries from buying gas above a certain price.
Dutch Minister Rob Jetten said that “we made good progress on making the system secure when it should be turned off” when the cap might have unexpected consequences like supply difficulties.
“But we still have work to do when and how the system should be turned on,” said Jetten.
The EU’s executive Commission last month proposed a “safety price ceiling” to kick in if natural gas exceeds 275 euros ($290) per megawatt hour for two weeks and if it is 58 euros higher than the price of liquefied natural gas on world markets. Such a system might not have averted hikes as high as in August — when prices hit nearly 350 euros per megawatt hour on Europe’s TTF benchmark but fell below 275 euros within days — and was met with derision. Gas is now trading at 140.55 euros per megawatt hour.
During the recent negotiations Tuesday figures ranged from 160 to 220 euros for the ceiling, officials said, but Sikela said different ceilings would need different triggers, making the debate on set ceilings largely moot.
The scare of exorbitant prices came in the heat of summer when a massive August spike stunned consumers and politicians, forcing the bloc to look for a cap to contain volatile prices that are fueling inflation. Months later, diplomats say a deal is still out of reach.
The inability to find a compromise on the price cap also has held up plans for joint gas purchases and a solidarity mechanism to help the neediest countries because the measures would be agreed on as a package.
On Monday, the heads of the International Energy Agency and the European Commission said the bloc is expected to weather an energy crisis this winter but needs to speed renewables to the market and take other steps to avoid a potential natural gas shortage next year.
Natural gas and electricity prices have soared as Moscow slashed gas supplies to Europe, whose officials have accused Russia of energy warfare to punish EU countries for supporting Ukraine.
As a result of trade disruptions tied to the war in Ukraine, EU nations have reduced the overall share of Russian natural gas imports to the EU from 40% before the invasion to around 7%. And gas storage is as good as full, far exceeding targets.
The EU has relied on increased imports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, from places like the United States to help address the fall in Russian supplies.