The European Commission has issued a stern rebuke against its top representative in Vienna, Martin Selmayr, after he said Austria's continued purchases of Russian gas amounted to "blood money".
"Oh my God, 55% of Austrian gas still comes from Russia," Selmayr said on Wednesday while taking part in a discussion at an art fair in Vienna.
"That surprises me because blood money is sent to Russia every day with the gas bill."
The unusually blunt remarks, reported by Austrian media, were met with a furious response by the conservative ruling party (ÖVP) and led to Selmayr being summoned to the Foreign Affairs Ministry for a meeting.
Karoline Edtstadler, the minister for EU affairs at the Austrian Chancellery, described the "blood money" remarks as "dubious," "counterproductive" and "completely one-sided."
"It is unfortunate that even an EU official does not seem to be familiar with certain facts," Edtstadler said, according to the public broadcaster ORF.
The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which is currently ranked first in opinion polls, denounced Selmayr and called for his immediate dismissal. The Greens and the Liberals, however, expressed their agreement with the characterisation.
Selmayr's office did not immediately reply to a Euronews request.
'Unnecessary and inappropriate'
In a statement shared with Die Presse, an Austrian newspaper, Selmayr said his comments were a reaction to a man in the audience who had accused the European Union and, in particular, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of "warmongering" and having "blood" in her hands.
Speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, Balazs Ujvari, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said Selymayr's choice of words was "not only unnecessary but also inappropriate" and breached the protocol standards that its representatives were expected to abide by.
Selmayr has been called for consultations with his hierarchical supervisor and will arrive in Brussels "in the near future," the spokesperson confirmed.
"Diplomacy is not just about the right content, but it's also about the right tone. Envoys (...) must weigh every word carefully because they play an important role as trusted messengers between us and the host government," Ujvari said.
"It's one thing to make a point on substance, it's another question how we make that point."
Ujvari refused to enter what he called "linguistic discussions" to clarify what exactly made the "blood money" comments so inadequate and how they differed from previous statements made by other EU officials calling for an end to Russian fossil fuels.
"The same rules apply to all members of personnel so what we expect from our members of personnel is to speak with proportionality, with discretion and select their words with due care. I believe this doesn't depend on the country (where they reside)," Ujvari said.
Asked whether defending von der Leyen justified the language, Dana Spinant, the Commission's deputy spokesperson, intervened to make a point.
"It is important that when we defend Europe or the actions of the European Commission (...) we do so while using a tonality and wording that keep the channels with communications open with the countries where our envoys are being posted. If we are insulted, which sometimes are, it is important not to answer back with the same means," Spinant said, noting she was not referring to the specific case at hand.
"In general, we need to be sober when we enter into conversations."
The spokespeople added the EU executive had engaged in bilateral talks with the Austrian government before issuing its public rebuke.
A well-documented dependency
This is not the first time that Austria has been under scrutiny for its continued reliance on Russian gas, which it obtains through a pipeline that the Kremlin maintains open. Unlike coal and seaborne oil, imports of Russian gas are not banned under EU sanctions.
Before the start of the invasion, Austria used to buy nearly 80% of its gas from Russia, a proportion that began falling in the aftermath of the war. In recent months, however, the share has increased and hit 60% in June.
The increase in dependency has been subject to extensive media coverage, including by Euronews, Le Monde and the New York Times, and has made Austria one of the few outliers in the European Union, where most member states have taken expensive measures to break free from Russia's energy imports.
The European Commission has put in place a plan, dubbed "REPowerEU," to wean the bloc completely off Russian fossil fuels and drastically ramp up the deployment of renewable systems.
"REPowerEU" has since become a flagship initiative, permeating other policy fields and even decorating the Commission's headquarters in Brussels.
In September last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to cap the price of Russian gas imports, arguing the continued purchases were helping the Kremlin cushion the impact of sanctions. (The plans were later abandoned and never turned into a legal proposal.)
"We all know that our sanctions are deeply grinding into the Russian economy, with a heavy negative impact. But Putin is partially buffering (it) through fossil fuel revenues," von der Leyen said in September.
"We must cut Russia's revenues, which Putin uses to finance his atrocious war in Ukraine."
Kadri Simson, the European commissioner for energy, has equally urged member states to phase out all gas imports from Russia and avoid signing new contracts once the existing arrangements expire.
"Gas supplies have been used as leverage to blackmail and divide Member States, to weaken the resolve to oppose an unjust and illegal war," Simson said in March.
"Such actions made it crystal clear that the Union should put an end to (the) massive dependency we had on Russia, built over decades."