They are more willing than I predicted to immiserate their populations
Europe is belatedly grappling with the (entirely foreseeable) consequences of imposing sanctions on Russia. The Nord Stream pipeline has been intermittently closed over the summer, reportedly for “maintenance” (which no one believes). Another closure has just been announced.
As a result, prices are rocketing across the continent, with the ripple effects already being felt by businesses and consumers. “The electricity market is no more a functioning market because there’s one actor — Putin — who’s systematically trying to destroy it”, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday, as she pledged emergency EU action to mitigate the impact of soaring costs on consumers and businesses.
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It’s anyone’s guess whether families and businesses already on tight margins, and struggling to recover from the impact of Covid measures, will survive the many weeks these “emergency” measures will take to devise. Regardless, the news prompted me to revisit my own predictions on Putin’s weaponisation of energy six months ago, back when the Western response to Russian aggression was still largely at the sabre-rattling stage.
I pointed out then that all of Europe was structurally dependent on Russian gas, and that Putin had timed his Ukraine excursion to coincide with an already tight energy market. Elites might well be blithe, I suggested, about the downstream political consequences of quadrupling ordinary families’ energy bills in pursuit of abstract principles such as “rules-based international order”. But this policy might not garner mainstream support further down the socioeconomic food chain.
More broadly, I argued, despite the wishful thinking of liberal internationalists, the End of History has well and truly ended, and geopolitics should adjust accordingly. Looking back, I was both right and wrong.
I was right about the predictable consequences of sanctions. The “cost of lockdown crisis” is already bad enough for the just-about-managing; piling a cost of Ukraine crisis on top is tipping millions into grim hardship. I was wrong, though, about two things: firstly, political leaders’ willingness to immiserate their own electorates in pursuit of abstract principle (they are more willing than I thought); and secondly, the ability of electorates to join the dots (they are taking surprisingly long to work it out).
A café owner in Ireland yesterday posted a photo of her electricity bill (above), amounting to nearly €10,000; it wasn’t this which excited comment, though, so much as the Ukraine flag in her Twitter bio. It’s a small detail, but one that strongly suggests the café owner continued to lend at least passive support to the very foreign policy measures chiefly responsible for the swingeing energy price rise now threatening the survival of her business.
We were always going to have to transition away from fossil fuels. And it was always likely to be a bumpy ride. Now, thanks to a concatenating series of leadership blunders, it looks as though it’s all going to land at once. It’s not just about Ukraine: less than joined-up thinking on renewables, the rose-tinted Merkelist view of dependence on Russian energy and short-sighted decisions on nuclear all play a part.
And arguably the European willingness to follow the American lead on prioritising “democracy” over affordable energy is, in its way, a realist one. The United States does, after all, underwrite European military security. If the Land of the Free also happens to have more abundant domestic energy supplies than Germany, well, that’s hardly Joe Biden’s fault.
In any case, from here it seems clear that businesses and consumers face a grim winter (or, more likely, several). And I’ll hazard being only partly right again, and predict that over the next six months, as the weather gets colder and more people join the dots, the popular European appetite for foreign grandstanding will begin to disintegrate. Quite possibly along with a great deal else besides, that we currently take for granted in our social fabric.