Commission: Prioritising agri-food sector in gas crisis is up to EU countries

Member state and industry representatives want better protection for the EU food and agriculture sector against potential gas shortages this winter, while the European Commission has pointed back to member states’ responsibility on the matter.

With winter approaching, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s interruptions of gas flows to Europe have raised concerns over supply shortages, prompting debates on which industries should be prioritised in case they materialise.

While the energy crisis was one of the dominating topics during the informal meeting of EU agriculture ministers on Friday (16 September) in Prague, some national representatives and stakeholders took the opportunity to raise the issue of gas prioritisation.

According to sources inside the meeting, Ramón Armengol, president of the EU agri-cooperatives association COGECA, stressed the vital importance of energy for the continuity of agricultural and food production.

He called on the EU to “follow up more strictly with gas rationing to ensure the agri-food sector is given priority,” adding agriculture and food “should continue to be considered a primary sector.”

However, contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission spokesperson said it is the responsibility of member states.

“Ultimately, it is up to member states to define the priority customers which should be protected in a gas crisis,” they said.

Initiatives from Germany, Slovakia

Some member states are already considering measures to shield the sector in this way.

According to the sources, representatives of Slovakia said during the meeting that the country is currently preparing legislation to fight energy price spikes, for which the “suggestion is that certain companies are to be included among the protected energy users.”

In Germany, federal and regional agriculture ministers agreed in a separate meeting on Friday, also attended by the head of the competent Federal Grid Agency, to call for agriculture and food production to be designated as so-called “protected customers” that would be prioritised in the case of potential gas scarcity.

“We find it extremely important to stress the systemic importance of our sector, of food and agriculture,” the chair of the ministers’ conference and agriculture minister of Eastern Germany region Saxony-Anhalt, Sven Schulze said.

He added clear rules on who is given priority in terms of gas supply would be needed to ensure “planning security” for the sector.

Earlier this month, the parliamentary group of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s social democrats had also called to protect agriculture and food production as “critical infrastructure” in a position paper.

However, the federal government has not yet taken any steps in this direction, citing the high level of gas storage meant to get the country through the winter.

“We, the government, have done our homework: We have filled up the storage tanks,” federal agriculture minister Cem Özdemir stressed after the meeting.

EU provides legal basis

According to the Commission, there are two ways within the EU’s legal framework to define priority gas customers.

One is through the Gas Security of Supply Regulation, according to which countries can define households as well as gas customers providing “essential social services” as so-called “protected customers.”

However, this provision is mainly geared towards private households and SMEs, the spokesperson said.

The other option is to designate agricultural and food producers as “other essential customers” in line with the guidelines laid out by the Commission in its Communication on “Safe Gas for a Safe Winter”, tabled in July, and the EU regulation on coordinated gas demand reduction measures.

Here, the food sector is specifically mentioned as part of those “societally critical” customers that should be protected, the spokesperson said.

This step was also welcomed by EU industry representatives, including EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA as well as food industry associations FoodDrinkEurope and Primary Food Processors.

In a statement published shortly after the Commission’s Communication in July, they also called on the member states to follow up on the initiative taken by the EU executive and “recognise the agri-food chain as a critical sector in their national emergency plans.”

Meanwhile, the Commission spokesperson stressed that a protected status “should not prevent anyone” from engaging in the gas-saving efforts required to cope with the “current tight natural gas supply situation in the EU.”

Natasha Foote contributed to the reporting.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]