Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Feature

Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline

  • Work in Albania on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline in December 2016 (Photo: © Trans Adriatic Pipeline.)

The Azerbaijani government may be a little annoyed with the son-in-law of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – at least in private.

Back in February, it hosted energy ministers and representatives of companies involved in the Southern Gas Corridor, a natural gas pipelines project that the EU sees as a key strategic priority.

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  • Signing ceremony at the second Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council in 2016, with Maros Sefcovic (l). On this occasion, the Turkish minister Berat Albayrak was present (r) (Photo: European Commission)

It was the fourth time that the so-called Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council met in Baku.

According to a European Commission document made public after an access to documents request by EUobserver, the Azerbaijani government was keen on having a public text that gave support to the project.

"As in previous years, the Azerbaijan hosts wish to publicise the good progress made in the development of the Southern Gas Corridor via a Joint Declaration," the EU document said (although the sentence was redacted in the online version of the released document).

The paper also said that it was in the interest of the EU to back the project publicly. However, in a letter responding to EUobserver's documents' request, a senior civil servant for the European Commission's directorate-general of energy said she could not release the actual declaration.

"This document … was not, in the end, signed by all the intended signatories and therefore the authorities of Azerbaijan are opposed to its disclosure," said Megan Richards.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU's commissioner in charge of Energy Union, told EUobserver more, in a short interview in his office in Brussels.

"The reason was that one of the ministers had to leave earlier than anticipated. He couldn't sign the declaration," said Sefcovic.

"The minister who had to leave was the Turkish minister," he said, referring to Berat Albayrak, who was then Turkey's minister of energy, but is now finance minister.

Neither Turkey's energy ministry, nor Azerbaijan's, responded to a request for a comment. It is not clear if Azerbaijan is pursuing a signature, either by Albayrak or his successor.

But Sefcovic said that to the contrary of what the affair may suggest, Turkey was committed to the Southern Gas Corridor, which will transport gas from the Caspian Sea via Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Italy.

The planned Southern Gas Corridor (Photo: © Trans Adriatic Pipeline)

"In his interventions, it was very clear that for Turkey obviously this is a super strategic project," said Sefcovic about Albayrak.

Indeed, his early departure seemed more to be a diplomatic aberration than a political statement.

"The Turkish minister left before the signing ceremony, but the declaration stands," said an EU source, who was also present at the Baku meeting, on condition of anonymity.

"The Turkish minister gave no reason, but I've seen many delegations leave early. It was not a big issue," the contact added.

The draft of the declaration is available online, and it contains mostly uncontroversial diplomatic language.

It said that the Southern Gas Corridor had achieved "significant progress" and welcomed the interest of potential additional gas suppliers in the region.

"It was significant that the presidential advisor from Turkmenistan was present at the Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council this year for the first time," said the EU source.

Concrete action

Sefcovic said the joint declaration "was superseded by concrete action".

He said work was "progressing well" to make sure that Azerbaijani gas will be delivered to Europe two years from now.

The idea behind the 3,500 km Southern Gas Corridor, launched almost a decade ago, is to make EU countries less dependent on a single supplier of gas.

In 2016, the EU had to import 70.4 percent of its natural gas. Of those imports from outside the EU, Russia was the largest supplier with 39.9 percent – up from 37 percent in 2015.

"I believe it will really help us diversify the supply of gas," Sefcovic said of the Southern Gas Corridor.

German chancellor Angela Merkel last month also expressed her support for the project, on a visit to Baku.

"Azerbaijan is an important factor for the European Union in the diversification of our energy supplies," said Merkel.

Police torture 'systemic and endemic'

The pipeline is an opportunity for Azerbaijan to profile itself as a reliable international partner, even as it is criticised for its poor domestic human rights record.

"I have worked to put over the point that strong civil society is an essential part of an open, secular society, and have made it plain that this is also what we wish to see," said Merkel.

Her visit came just over a month after a committee of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe produced a hugely-critical report about Azerbaijan's treatment of prisoners.

"The [committee's] overall impression of the situation in Azerbaijan is that torture and other forms of physical ill-treatment by the police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the whole law enforcement system and impunity remain systemic and endemic," said the Council of Europe.

One argument is that Azerbaijan's poor human rights record should be a reason not to do business with it, but the opposite view is that, through a commercial relationship, Europe can maintain a dialogue.

"The human rights are always with us in EU-Azerbaijan relations," said the EU source.

"We discuss human rights issues during almost all EU-Azerbaijan meetings. We cannot betray our principles and values," the contact added.

"Azerbaijani partners are open for a quiet diplomacy dialogue more than to 'megaphone diplomacy', and practical engagement policy yields results better"," the source added.

Fossil fuel

Another criticism the Southern Gas Corridor project has received, is that it does not fit with the EU's long-term climate goals.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, which contributes the greenhouse effect through emissions of CO2 and leaked methane.

But because natural gas may replace electricity production from coal – which emits more CO2 – the gas industry has successfully convinced EU policymakers to frame gas as a "bridge fuel".

Italy

The last leg of the Southern Gas Corridor, which involves a pipeline going through Greece, Albania, and Italy, is called the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline.

Sefcovic said that the commission was "in very intense contact" with the responsible consortium and the local authorities, to discuss the landing point in Puglia.

"The final chapter is always the most difficult one," said Sefcovic.

Local activists in Puglia fear that construction will affect two Unesco world heritage sites.

The pipeline is also a bone of contention between the Italian government's two coalition partners, the Five Star Movement and the League.

The Five Star Movement had campaigned against the pipeline, and over the summer, Five Star environment minister Sergio Costa told Reuters that the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) looked "pointless".

But its coalition partner supports the project.

Earlier this month, League leader and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini received former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who lobbies in favour of TAP.

"It was a friendly and positive meeting," Salvini said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Turkey has already started receiving Azerbaijani gas as of last June.

"With this project, gas from Azerbaijan will be carried to Europe for the first time," said Erdogan at the opening ceremony.

He also said the project was "a product of a close friendship between Turkey and Azerbaijan", a statement probably more important to Azerbaijan than the inking of a document.

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