As Europe’s leaders circled the wagons last week and agreed plans to reduce gas usage in the event of a Russian choke-off of supplies, Ireland succeeded in escaping pain free from the arrangement. So far, at least.
The expected energy crisis will play havoc with European living standards and the European economy, but it has been our good fortune to be shielded from the heaviest of the blows.
Even before we were formally granted an exemption from the proposed EU wide mandatory cuts, we were in the happy position of not being directly dependent on Russian gas.
Nearly one third of our requirements are provided by the Corrib gas field; the remainder is piped to us through the United Kingdom directly from the Norwegian gas fields. And – perhaps a reassuring sign that relations between ourselves and our neighbour are not as taut as some would believe – the British energy regulator had already signalled that, in the event of a crisis, supplies across the Irish Sea would not be reduced.
Given all that, however, no country or its citizens will escape unscathed from the punishment which Russia will mete out by cutting off gas supplies to the western world.
For now, at least, even with rising prices, there will be sufficient storage supplies to keep homes warm, provided Nature does not penalise us with an Arctic winter. But as gas prices are set to soar to ten times their normal level over the coming months, homeowners as well as businesses will feel the pinch. And should mandatory cuts be applied across the EU, we will at least be expected to show cause in solidarity with our partners by implementing efficiencies in energy use. And when, not if, the energy crisis sparks off recession across Europe, the adverse winds will buffet us as well.
Of more fundamental concern is whether European cohesion and solidarity will be able to weather the onslaught of an energy shortage. Vladimir Putin is banking on the belief that the longer he can make an energy crisis continue, the more likely it is that self-interest will trump the commitment to European unity. When recession begins to bite, and thousands of German industrial workers lose their jobs, and inflation runs out of control, he reckons that the appetite for punishing Russia for its Ukrainian invasion will wane. A popular backlash over energy prices could begin to erode popular support across the continent for facing down Mr Putin in the interests of a beleaguered Ukraine. And the temptation for states to hoard gas, or to block its flow to the next neighbouring country, would prove too strong.
There are many sides to the issue of energy being supplied by a country at war with its neighbours. It is Russia’s good fortune that its dependence on gas exports is relatively moderate. It can inflict more pain on its European customers by turning off the taps than itself will have to endure. It has the whip hand, and it is Europe’s – and especially Germany’s – misfortune that it is so utterly dependent on Russian gas to keep its wheels of industry turning.
On the other side is the reality that, having learned a hard lesson this time, Europe will feel even more compelled to develop alternative, and cleaner, energy sources. But this will be a longer story, which means that in the meantime, the use of now despised fossil fuels has begun to enter the equation again. And those who recoil in horror at that idea should remember that national leaders are nothing if not pragmatic, and the dictum of ‘needs must’ is never far from their mindset.