Europe is facing a long and dark winter
Finland is now the first Western country to concede that it will suffer power outages this winter, while Austria is preparing food distribution networks that can function in event of a blackout. Here in the UK, and in the typical mode of the privatised British state, there is a steady drip of reports from the National Grid on how they are preparing for possible power cuts. In this way the population is softened up for the likelihood of blackouts, without any elected leader or minister being forced to take political responsibility or make a formal announcement on behalf of the nation for this disaster.
In addition to exposing the dire state of energy infrastructure across Western Europe, the energy crunch has shown that much-vaunted wind and solar energy were only viable alongside a ready supply of gas to compensate for the intermittency of the weather. Even France, traditionally energy secure due to its large supply of nuclear power, is finding itself caught short as repairs take longer than anticipated on its ageing fleet of reactors.
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Even the network of interconnectors on which European countries have hitherto depended to shunt energy from areas of surplus to areas of deficit stands exposed: the interconnectors only function well when countries are not scrabbling for energy all at once. Britain, Germany, Slovakia and Norway are all mooting the prospect of having to prioritise their own energy needs over those of their neighbours for the coming winter, knocking out pillars of the interconnector system. The perversity of all of this is that it is self-imposed, artificial scarcity.
This artificial scarcity comes in two forms: ideological and geopolitical. Given the storage problems that still plague solar and wind energy, the fact that decarbonisation has raced ahead of what is technically feasible reflects the ideological zeal behind it. At the same time, Belgium, Britain and Germany’s governments have gouged their national capacity to generate low-carbon nuclear power. That energy production could systematically be stripped back on this scale while keeping houses warm and cities lit at night, was dependent on a steady supply of gas from Russia.
But since the sanctions on Russian gas, this is now no longer possible. Although there seems to be a welcome new consensus growing in favour of nuclear power, it will take years for Europe to recover from the artificial scarcity imposed by the reliance on renewables. In the interim, however, we could loosen the vice by reducing the sanctions on Russia and letting the gas flow again. Sanctions have little to commend them. The siege effect of sanctions forces beleaguered peoples to rally to their leaders.
At the same time, new black markets and sanction-busting efforts strengthen the clientelist and patronage networks on which authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s depend. Certainly, the sanctions have not stopped Putin’s war machine from grinding on. Now the tragedy is compounded by the fact that thus far, the sanctions are damaging the West more than they are Russia.
With President Joe Biden suggesting that he would be open to negotiations with the Russian President, now would be an opportune moment to get the gas flowing back into Europe. The blunt truth is that waving Ukrainian flags will not keep us warm this winter. If Europe is to avoid a new dark age of soaring energy bills, de-industrialisation and blackouts, we must start by ending the sanctions regime on Russia.