Belgium takes up baton to seek gas price cap

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Smoke billows from a chimney at a combined-cycle gas turbine power plant in Drogenbos, Belgium April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

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BRUSSELS, March 21 (Reuters) - Belgium will take the lead in pushing for a cap on European gas prices, its government said on Monday ahead of a summit where European Union leaders will discuss fresh measures to protect consumers from soaring energy costs.

EU countries have already poured billions of euros into tax cuts and subsidies to combat surging energy bills - but with gas prices jumping to fresh records following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, countries are seeking extra options.

"When the market does not work, we must intervene and work, for example, with a capped price for gas," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday.

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Belgian Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten said Belgium is "taking the lead in Europe" on the proposal for a price cap, combined with joint purchasing of gas among EU countries, and that both ideas had support from Spain.

Spain and Portugal last week said they had drawn up proposals to impose a 180-euro-per-megawatt-hour (MWh) price cap for electricity. But a Spanish Energy Ministry source said on Monday the cap was not the country's main proposal ahead of the EU leaders' meeting, and Spain would prioritise instead an idea to decouple the price of electricity from that of gas. Soaring gas prices are the main driver of rising electricity costs.

Russia is Europe's top gas supplier, providing around 40% of the EU's gas. Its invasion of Ukraine, which Russia refers to as a special military operation, has prompted the European Commission to draw up plans to end EU reliance on Russian gas within a few years, by hiking imports from elsewhere and expanding renewable energy faster.

Meanwhile, Brussels will propose extra options for countries to tackle soaring energy prices, ahead of the leaders' summit in Brussels on March 24-25.

The plans, which follow a first set of options the EU published in October, are expected to include financial support for vulnerable consumers, as well as options for market intervention - a move opposed by some states including Germany and the Netherlands, which warn of causing disruptions to energy markets that could undermine investments in clean energy.

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Reporting by Kate Abnett and Marine Strauss; Editing by Sandra Maler

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