EU Ministers Trying, Again, For Compromise on Gas Price Cap

BRUSSELS (AP) -- European Union ministers were trying again on Monday to finalize a long-awaited deal to implement a natural gas price cap that they hope can help households and businesses better weather excessive price surges.

The ministers have previously failed at overcoming their differences at five previous so-called emergency meetings, but several EU leaders said last week that fixing a maximum ceiling to pay for gas was likely to be achieved this time.

"We have defined the political framework that will allow our ministers to finalize the issue of a gas price cap," French President Emmanuel Macron said last week after a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels."

The 27 nations have stuck together through nine rounds of sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine and energy-saving measures to avoid shortages of the fuel used to generate electricity, heat homes and power factories.

But they have not been able to close a deal on setting a complicated price cap that had been promised in October as a way to reduce energy bills that have soared because of Russia's invasion.

"Today, we have to agree on a well-known mechanism which will prevent the European households and businesses from high gas price spikes, as we have seen during the last summer," said Czech Industry Minister Jozef Síkela, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council.

"I think that the European households and the businesses expects from us to act and I do not see any reason not to be able to agree today," Síkela said.

The gas cap issue has been a divisive one because of fears that global suppliers will simply bypass Europe when others offer more money.

"No one, least of all me, has anything against low prices on the gas market -- we have to bring gas prices down," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Monday. "We just know from previous market interventions that we must be very careful not to want to do something good and trigger something bad."

Asked about his Czech colleague noting that a qualified majority vote, with Germany potentially being outvoted, would be possible, Habeck replied that "this would of course be an undesirable result."

He said that "our questions, or concerns, are well-founded" and that "the spirit of recent years has been consensual." But he conceded that "if it happens, we will have to live with it."

Habeck said that the other side's position is "understandable," given Germany's energy policy of past years, but the EU should not "make a mistake that leads to a shortage -- that would affect large parts of Europe and not just Germany."

He said that Germany has a "special responsibility to solve the problem" and pointed to its inauguration on Saturday of its first liquefied natural gas, or LNG, terminal.

The EU's executive Commission last month proposed a "safety price ceiling" to kick in if natural gas exceeds 275 euros ($290) per megawatt hour for two weeks and if it is 58 euros higher than the price of liquefied natural gas on world markets. Such a system might not have averted hikes as high as in August -- when prices hit nearly 350 euros per megawatt hour on Europe's TTF benchmark but fell below 275 euros within days -- and was met with derision by many countries pushing for a lower trigger.

The Czech presidency has drafted a new proposal that would see the mechanism kick off if prices exceed 188 euros per megawatt hour for three days.

The scare of exorbitant prices came in the heat of summer when a massive August spike stunned consumers and politicians, forcing the bloc to look for a cap to contain volatile prices that are fueling inflation.

The inability to find a compromise on the price cap also has held up plans for joint gas purchases and a solidarity mechanism to help the neediest countries because the measures would be agreed on as a package.