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ENERGY

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

European governments are announcing emergency measures on a near-weekly basis to protect households and businesses from the energy crisis stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine.

Photo by Arthur Lambillotte on Unsplash

Hundreds of billions of euros and counting have been shelled out since Russia invaded its pro-EU neighbour in late February.

Governments have gone all out: from capping gas and electricity prices to rescuing struggling energy companies and providing direct aid to households to fill up their cars.

The public spending has continued, even though European Union countries had accumulated mountains of new debt to save their economies during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But some leaders have taken pride at their use of the public purse to battle this new crisis, which has sent inflation soaring, raised the cost of living and sparked fears of recession.

After announcing €14billion in new measures last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi boasted the latest spending put Italy, “among the countries that have spent the most in Europe”.

The Bruegel institute, a Brussels-based think tank that is tracking energy crisis spending by EU governments, ranks Italy as the second-biggest spender in Europe, after Germany.

READ ALSO How EU countries aim to cut energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Rome has allocated €59.2billion since September 2021 to shield households and businesses from the rising energy prices, accounting for 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Germany tops the list with €100.2billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP, as the country was hit hard by its reliance on Russian gas supplies, which have dwindled in suspected retaliation over Western sanctions against Moscow for the war.

On Wednesday, Germany announced the nationalisation of troubled gas giant Uniper.

France, which shielded consumers from gas and electricity price rises early, ranks third with €53.6billion euros allocated so far, representing 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Spending to continue rising
EU countries have now put up €314billion so far since September 2021, according to Bruegel.

“This number is set to increase as energy prices remain elevated,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told AFP.

The energy bills of a typical European family could reach €500 per month early next year, compared to €160 in 2021, according to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The measures to help consumers have ranged from a special tax on excess profits in Italy, to the energy price freeze in France, and subsidies public transport in Germany.

But the spending follows a pandemic response that increased public debt, which in the first quarter accounted for 189 percent of Greece’s GDP, 153 percent in Italy, 127 percent in Portugal, 118 percent in Spain and 114 percent in France.

“Initially designed as a temporary response to what was supposed to be a temporary problem, these measures have ballooned and become structural,” Tagliapietra said.

“This is clearly not sustainable from a public finance perspective. It is important that governments make an effort to focus this action on the most vulnerable households and businesses as much as possible.”

Budget reform
The higher spending comes as borrowing costs are rising. The European Central Bank hiked its rate for the first time in more than a decade in July to combat runaway inflation, which has been fuelled by soaring energy prices.

The yield on 10-year French sovereign bonds reached an eight-year high of 2.5 percent on Tuesday, while Germany now pays 1.8 percent interest after boasting a negative rate at the start of the year.

The rate charged to Italy has quadrupled from one percent earlier this year to four percent now, reviving the spectre of the debt crisis that threatened the eurozone a decade ago.

“It is critical to avoid debt crises that could have large destabilising effects and put the EU itself at risk,” the International Monetary Fund warned in a recent blog calling for reforms to budget rules.

The EU has suspended until 2023 rules that limit the public deficit of countries to three percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent.

The European Commission plans to present next month proposals to reform the 27-nation bloc’s budget rules, which have been shattered by the crises.

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COST OF LIVING

German bakeries fight for survival as costs spiral

Faced with exploding energy and ingredient costs, German baker Tobias Exner has installed new energy-efficient ovens, shortened his opening hours and even considered baking at lower temperatures.

But “it just doesn’t taste the same without a good crust”, he said, adding that in any case such efforts could do little to counter the existential crisis he and other bakers are facing.

“If the conditions don’t change, then sooner or later a large share of bakeries in Germany will simply no longer exist,” Exner told AFP.

Bakeries in Germany have been among the businesses hardest hit by the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war has sent energy prices spiralling across Europe, but especially in Germany, which was previously heavily dependent on Russian gas.

“Bakeries all have ovens. Seventy percent of artisanal bakeries have gas ovens and gas prices are going through the roof,” said Friedemann Berg, managing director of the German Bakers’ Federation.

And two of the main ingredients used by bakers — flour and oil — are among those that have been affected by blockades at Ukrainian ports.

Exner’s business is relatively large with 220 staff and 36 branches in Berlin and the surrounding area, leaving it better placed than many to survive the crisis — but even he is struggling.

Wheat is now 2.5 times more expensive than before the crisis, he said, while the cost of a litre of oil has risen from around 82 cents to more than three euros ($2.91).

Dough in the dark

Energy bills for the business, meanwhile, have almost quadrupled compared with 2020.

“You can see that the calculations no longer work,” Exner said to the hum of machines at the company’s main production site in the town of Beelitz.

But Exner is reluctant to pass the cost increases on to his customers, who he simply believes “would not pay those kinds of prices”.

In central Berlin, the mood on the ground appears to confirm his fears.

“Even more? No way. It’s getting extortionate,” said unemployed Gloria Thomas, 56, when asked whether she would be prepared to pay more for her favourite loaf.

Many bakeries in Germany have already gone under as a result of recent cost increases, with others staging protests to demand urgent help from the government.

And there is more at stake than just bread rolls, according to Exner.

“These businesses are often the most important institution in the village — they are at once grocery store, social centre, post office, etc.”

In early September, around 800 German bakeries served customers in the dark for a day to draw attention to their plight.

Insolvency blunder

Germany’s centre-left government has announced relief measures worth almost 100 billion euros to tackle inflation, but small businesses have so far been largely excluded from the help.

Worse still, they were left feeling insulted by controversial comments by Economy Minister Robert Habeck earlier this month.

Asked on a TV panel show whether he thought Germany was heading for a wave of insolvencies, Habeck replied: “I can imagine that certain industries will simply stop producing for a while.”

The comments provoked anger from bakers in particular, who accused Habeck of having no understanding of their industry.

“Habeck is probably not a stupid person, but the question is, is he qualified for the job he has right now? And I would say no,” said Exner.

The Bakers’ Confederation is calling for “quick and unbureaucratic” financial aid.

Bakeries can shave off costs here and there but they “can only do so much”, according to Berg.

If government help does not arrive soon “the future looks bleak,” he said. “It could be that many businesses have to give up their operations or simply file for bankruptcy.”

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