French president Emmanuel Macron has opposed Germany's plans to build a gas pipeline from Portugal that will run through Spain and France to bring Algerian and liquefied natural gas to central Europe.
He suggested the Midcat project was logistically unsound as existing pipelines under the Pyrenees were only operating at half capacity and mainly flowing from north to south.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last month pushed for the pipeline to wean Europe from Russian energy dependence, saying he had lobbied strongly for the setting up of such a project.
“I do not understand what short-term problem this would solve,” Mr Macron said during a news conference after a video call with Mr Scholz about energy problems in Europe.
“I do not understand why we would jump around like Pyrenees goats on this topic,” he said, paraphrasing a famous expression by former president Charles de Gaulle.
Mr Macron said he was not convinced of the need for more gas interconnections but added that if Mr Scholz or Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez could show him that the opposite was true, he was willing to review his position.
Spain and Portugal have huge gas import capacities through their LNG terminals and Mr Scholz sees these as a way to boost gas pipeline interconnections in Europe.
France has long been opposed to a new cross-Pyrenees pipeline and prefers the installation of new LNG terminals.
Launched in 2013, the Midcat project would connect to Spain's gas pipeline north of Barcelona and could notably boost the import of Algerian gas by northern Europe. The project was suspended in 2019 due to cost and environmental reasons.
EU's Midcat doubts
As with Mr Macron, EU officials are sceptical about reviving the project, despite Russia indefinitely suspending supply to the region from its Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, considers that technical assessments show the new infrastructure would achieve no benefits and could take up to seven years to complete.
Another facet is environmental, with the EU’s green objectives to reduce dependency from fossil fuels having excluded gas projects from the commission’s priority list. Gas is now labelled a transitional fuel.
Europe is considering various measures to intervene in the energy market, including price caps, reduced power demand and windfall taxes on energy companies as surging prices threaten the economy and push households towards poverty.
EU energy ministers are meeting on Friday to discuss these extraordinary measures.
Spain considers the EU's dismissal of the Midcat project as overly short-termist, suggesting the technical assessments did not consider the potential for transporting renewable hydrogen from the Iberian Peninsula, which it says is needed.
RepowerEU, the commission’s plan to reduce its dependency from Russian gas presented last May, noted that new investments to connect LNG terminals in the Iberian Peninsula with the rest of Europe through hydrogen-ready infrastructure could help to diversify gas supply and exploit the potential for renewable hydrogen.
Spanish Environmental Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said the debate over the feasibility of Midcat shouldn’t end, even after Mr Macron's unfavourable intervention.
Discussions shouldn’t be halted because of one country’s stance, she said, adding that “Macron spoke for France’s public opinion”.
If the Midcat project fails to move forward, Spain is pushing for a gas pipeline with Italy that would connect Barcelona and Livorno. This project could turn out to be more attractive in a cost-benefit analysis to the EU.