European energy security is not up to Europe
It is no secret that Russian dominance of European natural gas markets has splintered the Union.
The imperative of having enough heat or cooking fuel in the winter has put countries – especially in central and eastern Europe – in two camps: those who make bilateral deals with Russia’s energy behemoth Gazprom (Western unity be damned), and those who suffer from the disunity and call continually not just for co-ordinated policies to withstand Moscow’s pressure, but also for alternative resources from the Caspian region or elsewhere to diversify supply.
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The second camp has it right, but they – as well as Euro-Atlantic institutions – have sabotaged their own efforts by seeking to dictate terms to alternative producers, such as Azerbaijan.
All the while, the pro-Russia camp has made gains.
Earlier in March, Serbia passed a constitutional amendment on land ownership to make it easier for Gazprom to buy up the land it needs for a major pipeline project aimed at increasing southeastern Europe’s dependence on Russian resources and defeating regional plans for diversification.
This follows Germany’s joint development with Russia of the Nord Stream pipeline, which connects German consumers directly to Russian fields across the Baltic Sea. It bypasses and undermines the energy security of fellow Nato and European Union members, Poland and the Baltic states.
The problem with these policies is that in making a bilateral deal with Gazprom on natural gas supply, individual European countries are in fact coming in line with Kremlin policy which seeks to divide and conquer the continent.
Not only is energy geopolitics an acknowledged tool of Moscow’s foreign policy – it says so clearly in Russia’s national security doctrine – but maintaining “security of demand” in Europe is one of the only ways that Russia can ensure its economy stays afloat.
Some efforts have been made to ameliorate the problem.
Small interconnector pipelines have been built to move gas from one European country to another should Russia cut off gas supplies, as it has in winters past. The EU’s so-called Third Energy Package has provisions for combating front companies and corruption associated with Russian energy concerns in Europe.
But, the main solution to this conundrum has been clear for over a decade and a half: bring non-Russian gas to European markets along a route that does not traverse territory over which Russia has influence.
The US special envoy for Eurasian energy, a position which existed in various guises during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, was tasked specifically with making this happen.
Myriad European governments and companies have been involved in pushing for the so-called Nabucco pipeline to the Caspian through Turkey, but few have committed concretely to making it happen.
So, after years of stalling, the Shah Deniz consortium in Azerbaijan – the holder of the alternative gas - has decided to build its own pipeline from Baku to the EU border.
From there they must choose one of two routes: so-called Nabucco West going north to Austria and Central Europe, or the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline through Greece and the Western Balkans to Italy. The transatlantic discussion, in Washington and Brussels, has long been in favor of the Nabucco option, in whatever form it takes, because of the history of Western plans that went nowhere.
But when it comes down to it, this choice is not up to European consumers or Western strategists.
Those with the gas, Shah Deniz members BP, Statoil, Total, and most importantly the Azerbaijani state energy company Socar, will be the ones to decide.
Instead of debating a choice which is not theirs to make, Western governments should be courting Caspian producers.
Beyond Shah Deniz lies Azerbaijan’s immense Absheron field, as well as gargantuan reserves in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Azerbaijan could not only serve as a source of gas, but a bridge to more resources. The idea that some European states are courting Russia instead of Caspian producers approaches the absurd.
The fact that those strategically-minded enough to look towards the Caspian seek to dictate terms to the producers needed for their own energy security is self-defeating.
The writer is an advisor with the European Energy Security Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West