BRUSSELS, Belgium – Europe is in the grip of its deepest freeze for years with over 200 people reported killed by a wave of icy air sweeping in from Siberia that has dragged temperatures to below -30 C and draped the continent in snow from Belgium to the Black Sea.
The weather is bringing more misery to those hardest hit by the economic crisis.
In Greece, where the number of homeless is reportedly up by 25 percent over the past two years, temperatures of -17 C were have been recorded in the north of the country and snow has fallen in Athens.
Villagers in Hungary unable to pay for heating gas have been digging out coal from frozen ground around disused mines. Among 101 people reported killed by the cold in Ukraine, 64 were homeless.
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Now there is concern that the chill winds blowing from the east could be followed by an energy crisis, as Russia cuts gas supplies which citizens of many European countries rely on for household heating. The European Union confirmed Friday that deliveries of Russian gas to some EU countries had fallen by as much as 30 percent in recent days.
The news revived fears of the crises of 2006 and 2009, when supplies of Russian gas reaching Europe through Ukrainian pipelines were cut, leaving millions facing mid-winter shortages.
Those crises led to accusations that Moscow was holding Europe ransom to demand higher prices for its gas, or to exert political pressure – particularly on Ukraine's then pro-Western government. Russia retorted that Ukraine was refusing to pay for its gas, and was diverting gas destined for customers further west.
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This time, so far, the EU is accepting the Russian explanation. “Our member states have been informed by the Russians that they too have a really cold winter and Russia needs more gas than normal,” said Marlene Holzner, the European Commission’s energy spokeswoman.
Holzner also explained that backup measures introduced by the EU after the 2009 crisis are working so countries facing cuts from Russia – Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Italy – are able to make up the shortfalls.
“We are not yet in an emergency situation, because all of our member states have been able to get gas from elsewhere, either by buying it from other members or from their own stocks,” she told reporters.
The EU gets about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Since the 2009 crisis, the bloc has stipulated that its members must maintain 30 days of gas stocks in reserve in case of emergencies and has improved connections so that EU countries can exchange supplies if the tap is turned off on the pipelines from the East.
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