Europe's Energy Disunion | Opinion

Europe has immense difficulty putting its money where its mouth is. Amidst ceaseless talk of "energy independence" in Brussels and national capitals, how much is the continent willing to invest to definitively wean itself off Russian gas? The figure would likely climb with the war's every passing minute.

The problem, however, is that there is no such figure. Despite the real prospect of blackouts this winter, Europe is not on the same page when it comes to energy. Late last week, the French Ministry of Ecology showed yet again its intent to stonewall Midi-Catalonia (MidCat), a half-built gas pipeline that would link up Germany and surrounding Russia-dependent countries to Algeria's alternative supply through the Iberian Peninsula. Politicians and executives across Spain, MidCat's main would-be beneficiaries, are understandably incensed.

There are currently two gas pipelines linking Spain to France. At only 8 billion cubic meters a year, their capacity can only go so far in substituting Germany's gas consumption away from Russia, of which Nord Stream II, by contrast, was expected to cover a whopping 55 billion. Spain also imports liquefied natural gas (LNG) and re-gasifies it. With imports of both Algerian gas and overseas LNG growing at a record pace, the two existing pipelines are the choke point. As the war in Ukraine rages and blackouts become likelier, Germany is looking for a way out. The MidCat project, launched in the mid-2000s, was nixed by French and Spanish regulators in 2019 on cost and ecological grounds. If revived, the missing 226 km of pipeline across the Pyrenees would, according to Spain's Defense Ministry, reduce Europe's Russian gas imports by 10 percent.

The idea gained new traction in the run-up to the EU Council Meeting in Versailles back in March, where Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lobbied his colleagues to support the project along with a proposal for joint EU gas purchases. Sánchez's efforts turned successful when Ursula von der Leyen announced the European Commission was willing to fund the project's estimated cost of €500 million. Perhaps more crucially, Olaf Scholz came out vocally in support of reviving MidCat earlier this month. Germany's social-democratic chancellor claimed it would "massively" help to reduce Europe's dependence on Russia. With Portugal also staunchly backing MidCat, France is alone on the nay side.

Emmanuel Macron's government opposes MidCat for three interrelated reasons. In addition to claiming the €500 million price tag is too high, France faces added costs (such as from odorizing the gas) if it were to build the rest of the pipeline on its side of the Pyrenees—costs it claims are not being considered in the official estimates. Yet Macron has not even requested EU funds to cover those extra costs, which suggests other motives are in play.

Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz
MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 30: French President Emmanuel Macron (C) chats with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (L) before the start of the Heads of State North Atlantic Council round table meeting during the NATO Summit on June 30, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. During the summit in Madrid, NATO leaders will make the historic decision whether to increase the number of high-readiness troops above 300,000 to face the Russian threat. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Crucially, France also claims the project does not "appropriately respond to Europe's current energy ills," because finalizing it would take too long and would deviate from the EU's stated goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Whilst Spain estimates the pipeline would be built in nine months, France says it would take two years at a minimum, during which time the war in Ukraine may end and a different global context would emerge.

All three arguments are spurious. With every passing day, Europe foots an import bill of hundreds of millions of euros from Russia while the latter threatens to imminently cut or halt those supplies. Investing MidCat's upfront €500 million cost—less than a day's gas bill from Russia—could considerably bolster Europe's energy independence in less than a year. Secondly, refusing to jump on the natural gas bandwagon out of climate-related worries is akin to refusing a lightweight fleece at the North Pole because it's not warm enough. MidCat is not a panacea, but it's better than nothing.

Once more, Europe must choose between singing up for overly ambitious targets to be accomplished in unknown ways in the far-off future, or a credible alternative to get through the coming winter. And that's not all—MidCat can, if repurposed at little cost, carry green hydrogen, which Spain has spent 1.5 billion of its NextGeneration EU money developing.

As often happens in energy statecraft, there is a difference between the motives France alleges and the truth. The country has four regasification plants to Spain's six, used at 41 percent of capacity, so it would rather compete with Spain and Italy to become Europe's largest entry point for liquefied natural gas instead of letting Spain profit from the cheaper Algerian route, which does not require liquefaction. More generally, France wants to remain a large exporter of nuclear-powered electricity through Europe's interconnected grid, so shifting the EU's intake towards gas would be bad for business. At the upcoming EU Council in Frankfurt in October, Spain will likely make a last-ditch attempt to revive MidCat, but Macron appears unlikely to change his mind.

This should teach the world a lesson that even in the EU, one state's narrow self-interest can trump the highest-minded invocations of "strategic autonomy" and "energy independence."

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the executive director of the Madrid-based think-tank Fundación Civismo and the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast (@UnDecencyPod).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.