I arrived back in the United States last evening after a 7-hour flight back across the Atlantic. Originally, I planned to depart either today or Monday but after disembarking and seeing the questionable weather for Southeastern England I decided to depart on Saturday. It turns out to have been a smart move. Today ice, snow, freezing fog and frigid temperatures have descended upon Great Britain. Western Europe will also be affected as this first snap of Arctic weather will arrive on the continent by Monday, bringing on Europe’s first test of its energy supplies this winter. So far, warmer temperatures have kept energy usage manageable. Now, with the weather changing and troubles with French nuclear plants having caused a brief power outage in Paris last week, many Europeans are becoming uneasy about what the winter may hold.
The European Union continues to claim natural gas storage amounts exceed 90% as national governments urge citizens, companies and local authorities to conserve energy usage as much as possible. This week’s coming frigid temperatures will reveal how well-prepared Europe really is. French grid operator RTE has stated there are no power cuts planned for Monday or Tuesday. Whether or not this remains true will depend on the weather. A drop in electrical use across France last week, as well as increased output at French nuclear power plants starting tomorrow, are expected to satisfy demand in France.
France is not the only nation uneasy about what the coming cold snap might bring. Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported on Friday that a leaked government report has revealed Belgium’s natural gas supply could be at risk in the event of extended cold temperatures and subsequent increased demand. The Swedish government is urging Swedes to conserve energy to reduce the possibility of power cuts. On my Atlantic transit and time in England on Saturday I heard many Britons voice concerns about potential blackouts looming as the cold weather looms. All things considered, Europeans are right to be worried.
For months European Union officials have claimed the Union should prepared if Russia decides to halt gas shipments to Europe indefinitely. However, Gazprom’s decision halt Nord Stream 1 deliveries, ostensibly due to needed turbine repairs, has shown the earlier EU confidence might’ve been premature. Energy markets are volatile right now with prices surging. If this was not bad enough, many European energy companies are facing margin calls at the worst possible time. Collateral cash is not available in the amounts needed, mainly owing to the volatility of energy markets, which has been sparked in-turn by the energy. The chips are down, and the red light is flashing on the continent as leaders and energy ministers try and come to terms with the crisis now staring directly at them.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned today that swift action must be taken to prevent a broad economic shutdown continent-wide. “A few weeks like this and the European economy will just go into a full stop. Recovering from that is going to be much more complicated than intervening in gas markets today. The risk of that is de-industrialization and severe risk of fundamental social unrest.” De Croo made these comments in an interview with Bloomberg. Tomorrow 27 EU energy ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss a plan for intervention in European energy markets. As some analysts have said earlier this week, Europe is now facing a “Lehman Event” and swift intervention could be the only tool strong enough to stave off major disaster.
Even though European officials continue to claim gas storage supplies are sufficient enough to get EU nations through the winter, there’s increasing worry that if even one member-state must resort to blackouts and other energy restrictions it will create a domino-effect throughout the entire EU. Given the current state of energy in Europe this is a very possible prospect once winter sets in.
The European Union’s executive body is proposing additional travel restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus mutations and variants, and to maintain the movement of goods and workers across EU borders. The EU’s 27 member-states have been urged specifically to increase testing and quarantine steps for travelers as concerns about production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have risen in recent days. The appearance of new variants that are more transmissible poses a risk to European hospitals, already struggling to contend with increasing numbers of new cases.
The new coronavirus variants have compelled many European nations to tighten their already extensive lockdown measures. France is considering the implementation of a third national lockdown if the 12-hour curfew now in place fails to stem the spread of new infections. Belgium has banned nonessential travel for its residents until March at the very least. Sweden has also barred travel from Norway in a move aimed at stopping the spread of new coronavirus variants.
Curtailing or banning nonessential travel is a difficult pill to swallow for the EU. It goes directly against the principle of free travel beyond national borders, a pillar of the Union. The virtues of free travel and unhindered movement have not stopped some national leaders on the continent from considering stricter measures. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that “no tourist travel should be taking place” as the German government weighed tougher measures.
Meanwhile, as travel restrictions are debated 400,000 EU citizens have already died from the virus since last February when COVID-19 made its first appearance in Europe.
Europe is facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases continue to surge in many nations across the continent. Outbreaks are being reported in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and areas of Spain and Italy among others. Governments have been deliberately selective with placing restrictions, and lockdowns on the general public, but the time may be nearing when more immoderate measures are put into play. Ireland is the only EU nation to reimpose a six-week long nationwide lockdown starting Thursday. Nonessential retail businesses will close, and residents are expected to stay within three miles of their homes, except for work and other essential activities. Police will set up road checkpoints to deter unnecessary travel.
On the continent, select regions in Spain and Italy are returning to lockdown conditions. A two week lockdown begins in the Spanish region of Navarre on Thursday. The measures being imposed on Navarre are more restrictive than those which have been placed on Madrid by Spain’s central government. In Italy, the southern region of Campania will be conducting an 11 PM- 5 AM curfew similar to one currently in place in the north. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that this time around, unlike the March lockdown, he is giving towns and regions more freedom to decide what measures to put into place. In effect, Conte is giving towns and regions across Italy the ability to decide their own fate.
With a second wave of the pandemic now ramping up, travel restrictions which had been relaxed over the summer are starting to be reintroduced in some cases. Denmark has closed its borders again to a number of European nations that it considers to be high-risk. France is suggesting voluntary quarantines for people arriving from Britain and Spain. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the governments are trying to discourage non-essential travel across the shared border of the two nations.
All of these measures are relatively fair, and cannot be considered extreme. If case numbers do start to surge dramatically though, restrictions will become tighter and for the second time in a year the European Union could see its member-states closing its borders to essentially the rest of the continent.
At the German port of Bremerhaven the first wave of US troops and equipment started arriving on Friday as preparations for the Defender 20 exercise move into high gear. In the coming days and weeks they will be followed by 20,000 troops and roughly a division’s worth of equipment. The equipment will make the trans-Atlantic crossing by ship and arrive at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Troops will fly across, mate up with their equipment and then move east from staging areas in Germany to Poland and the Baltic States where the bulk of the exercise will take place. For citizens of Germany and the Low Countries who remember the later years of the Cold War, it might seem more like 1987 than 2020 for the next few weeks. Defender 20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the REFORGER exercises held by the US during the Cold War.
Defender 20 will be the biggest NATO military exercise in Europe in 25 years. The purpose of the maneuvers is more significant than the size. This will be the first time since the REFORGER days that the US has practiced moving a division sized force across the Atlantic and then deploying to a potential battlefield. Europe in 2020 is a very different place than it was in 1987, but the emergence of the Russian threat in recent years highlights the need for the US and NATO to take the defense of Eastern Europe seriously. NATO’s creation the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is a sign of this. But if a conflict should break out in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, US heavy-maneuver forces will be essential to defending Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when the main opponent was the Soviet Union. The main difference now is geographic location of potential fighting. In a future conflict it will be Poland and the Baltics, not West Germany and the rest of Central Europe.
The exercise will start in April and the bulk of it will run through the end of May. As the start dates gets closer I’ll talk more about Defender 20, and Russia’s reaction to it.