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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.

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis
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

How much will electricity tax cut save bill payers in Denmark?

Denmark is to reduce electricity tax to almost zero, in one of a number of measures announced on Friday to help households cope with soaring costs. How much do bill payers stand to save, and is the tax cut a good solution for the predicament?

How much will electricity tax cut save bill payers in Denmark?

A broad majority in the Danish parliament has agreed a new package of cost-saving measures for homes this winter, including sunk electricity taxes and increased family welfare.

Parliament has agreed the new measures to provide additional help to people, particularly families, who are struggling with energy costs.

A core component of the package includes lowering the electricity tax from 69.7 øre per kilowatt-hour to 0.8 øre – equivalent to the minimum rate permitted by the EU – for the first six months of 2023. An øre, literally translating to ‘ear,’ is a kroner-cent. 

This measure alone is estimated to cost the Danish state 3.5 billion kroner, while the total cost of the package to the government is around five billion kroner. The deal could be officially adopted by parliament as early as next week.

READ ALSO: Denmark announces new winter aid package for households

The decision is the latest in a number of measures taken by the Danish government in response to record energy prices.

As a result of supply stoppages for Russian gas, on top of inflation, energy prices in Denmark are at record levels, with high costs set to persist throughout the winter.

“Danes are hit hard by inflation. That can already be felt now. We can look ahead to a winter when it will be even more prominent,” Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen said at a press briefing on Friday at which the new package was presented.

“It’s important that we don’t provoke further inflation but we must also help Danes and keep Denmark on the right track. That is what we are doing with this agreement,” he said.

The cut to electricity taxes could save individual households between 1,000 and 2,000 kroner on their bills, according to an expert who spoke to Danish news wire Ritzau.

READ ALSO: How much will Danish energy bills go up this winter?

Despite this, the decision to cut energy tax may not prove to be the best fix for the issue, he said.

“With these initiatives a household will be able to spare between 1,000 and 2,000 kroner on their electricity bill,” Brian Vad Mathiesen, professor in energy planning at Aalborg University, told Ritzau.

“I think it would have been better to send a cheque to all households with a set amount and then keep the electricity tax,” he said.

The government has previously sent one-off payments to selected households in response to the energy crisis. In August, around 400,000 homes in Denmark received 6,000 kroner towards gas bills. To receive the money, the homes had to be primarily gas heated and under a specified total income level, among other criteria.

READ ALSO: Denmark’s state auditor to review potential errors in energy relief payments

But the government has said it wants to limit relief in the form of lump sums because this risks worsening inflation.

Mathiesen said that cutting the electricity tax could have the unwanted effect of removing the incentive for homes to save on electricity use.

More efficient use of energy is the most important tool in the current climate of extremely high energy prices, he said.

“What you risk is that people will take their foot off the brake on energy consumption and that could be harmful in relation to price setting – we could actually experience higher prices than expected,” he said.

The energy planning expert called for more government initiatives that would encourage the Danish public to restrict its energy consumption.

“I also note that there are some long-term initiatives to switch back to district heating [from individual gas heaters, thereby reducing gas consumption for heating, ed.]. I hope that there will be more of these savings initiatives. Both for households and businesses, because that is something that can reduce inflation,” he said.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: When should I turn on my heating in Denmark this year?

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