As Europe is hit by a drought, the worst in 500 years, there’s surprising wisdom coming to the dry shores, reminding Europeans that their long-held grandeur might fast evaporate into a delusion.

"If you see me, then weep," reads an inscription on a 'hunger stone', which recently appeared after water levels fell in the Elbe river in Germany.

Found in European rivers, ‘hunger stones' are markers from another time and age indicating water levels during previous historic droughts – they warn of famine and hardship, which is likely to follow when these stones become visible. 

In what appears to be a Biblical prophecy coming true, Europe has been gripped by massive wildfires, the worst drought in 500 years and record-breaking summer temperatures. The food and energy crises as a direct result of the Ukraine conflict are making things worse.  

In France, the climate emergency has left water levels in some rivers at an all-time low, putting nuclear power plants out of commission, which need water to cool their systems. 

In Germany, low water levels in the Rhine river mean traffic of industrial goods has slowed, and barges can only carry a quarter of their capacity to ensure they are grounded on river beds. This has quadrupled shipping costs on the Rhine. 

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict hits the six-month mark, there's further hardship coming the way of Europe in the form of an exacerbated energy crisis and divided loyalties between member countries.

Germany has already moved onto stage three of its gas emergency plan, which means the country will not have enough gas to provide for both industry and households. The German government, obligated by law to provide gas to households, is likely to ration gas supply to the industry. 

Gas is currently more expensive on the international market than what is being billed to European customers, which means when the price correction strikes in autumn, consumers will be left with a huge hole in their pocket.  

There's also talk of drafting laws in Germany to help landlords lower the heating in centrally-heated apartment buildings. The government is proposing to reduce the central heating temperature from 22 to 17 degrees centigrade. This has sent further shock waves among a populace which is used to the smaller luxuries of life. 

Germans are now investing in electric heaters and wood-burning heaters, but that's only those who can afford them. 

Analysts in Germany are worried about the possibility of social instability. If the coming winter is particularly intense with the reduced gas flow into homes and the rising price of electricity, there is a strong possibility of protests from both sides of the political spectrum, the right and the left. 

A financial analyst from Spain recently said that the Spanish remember poverty and political uncertainty. He said he remembers growing up how poor the country was, but wondered what the Germans would do when hit with a high cost of living crisis.  

Cracking European Unity 

Energy conservation is the new buzzword in Europe, forcing the EU to look inwards and call on the shared European values. 

After Germany, Italy and France are the EU's biggest gas users and are likely to be affected the most should Russia completely switch off the gas this winter. Currently, gas flow in the NordStream 1 pipeline is at 20 percent of its capacity. 

Italy has just one bilateral deal on emergency gas sharing, while France has none.

But when Germany went looking to call on those shared European values at a recent meeting of the European Energy Commission, there wasn't much sway.

One Spanish diplomat, while speaking off the record, told a senior journalist, “We haven't been living beyond our means”, implying that Germans had been doing just so and now expect everyone else to help them.

The Greeks weren't too impressed either. Germany has previously dealt very harshly with the country following the Greek financial crisis of 2009.  Greece has only this year managed to shake off monitoring of its finances by the EU following the strict conditions Germany/EU had placed on them.

The proposal to cut gas consumption by 15 percent was met with fierce resistance by Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy, and other countries which depend less on Russian gas and feel that they are being forced to compensate for the mistakes of others, especially Germany. 

That pushback meant Germany came out of the European Commission meeting with only a voluntary deal of reduction of gas consumption. A voluntary deal means nothing, it is only a weak promise; one can expect all EU member countries to act only in their own interest.

While it is not clear to what extent hot water, electricity and heating will be available in countries like Germany, Austria, Italy or Hungary, it is abundantly clear that the crisis in Europe is pressing at the seams of European unity.  

Most European politicians, mindful of public backlash in their own backyards, are likely to not introduce strict gas usage regulations on their own people so that Germans can have a more comfortable winter.

But Germany's waning economy is visible all across Europe.

Rampant inflation in the Eurozone is further widening the cracks in the EU. Should the European Central Bank raise interest rates, it could plunge southern Europe into a new sovereign debt crisis akin to the 2010 upheaval. 

However, should that happen, many in southern Europe are not sure whether Germany will be able to bail them out again.

Germany's industrial base is getting weaker and the population poorer; thousands of tenants have been reaching out to the renters’ association, asking them to lobby the government to subsidise energy costs.

In the summer, the German government introduced a populist nine Euro monthly train ticket valid for country-wide travel for three months only. That promotion stops at the end of August, and there are calls to extend it indefinitely, but the finance minister said there is no budget for that.

In these conditions, if Germany has to bail out European countries, there will very likely be mass protests in the country, putting further pressure on the government and European unity. 

It is now a well-assumed idea that European solidarity is already past its tipping point. But could the energy crisis coupled with the climate crisis and global economic slowdown push it to breaking point? The answer is quite possibly, yes.

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Source: TRT World