17th Jun 2019

Barroso promises to push Putin on Lithuania oil

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has promised Lithuania he will raise the issue of Russian oil supplies when he meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Samara on 18 May, following Vilnius' threat to add its own veto to the existing Polish veto on starting new EU-Russia treaty talks if the oil problem is not fixed.

"I will address the matter in my meeting with president Putin at the forthcoming EU-Russia summit in May if it is not settled by then," Mr Barroso wrote in a letter - seen by EUobserver - to Lithuanian and Polish leaders on 8 March. "I and commissioner Piebalgs have been pressing the Russians on the issue of the cessation of oil supplies through the Druzhba pipeline," he added.

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Russia shut down a branch of the Druzhba pipe last July citing technical repairs. But Lithuania sees the move as political punishment for selling its oil refinery, Mazeikiu Nafta, to a Polish company instead of a Russian bidder, with Lithuanian diplomats recently complaining that Brussels has not responded to eight months of attempts to put the issue on the agenda of high-level EU-Russia meetings.

Lithuanian undersecretary of state, Zygimantas Pavilionis said in late February that any EU-Russia treaty "will have to wait until the Russians stop playing games with our oil" adding "I'm sorry, but Lithuanians can become Poles" in a reference to Poland's existing veto on the treaty talks, with Warsaw's restriction based on a Russian ban on Polish meat exports as well as wider energy concerns.

The Barroso letter stated that "solidarity is essential to the development of the European energy policy" and backed Polish and Lithuanian requests for a commission co-financed feasibility study on building new gas supply "interconnectors" between Lithuania and Poland. The connectors would allow Poland to ship gas to Lithuania in the event of interruptions of Russian gas supply.

The notion of EU energy "solidarity" was first put on the table last year by the then Polish prime minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz who wanted the EU to create an "energy NATO"-type agreement with an "all-for-one and one-for-all" clause modelled on the trans-Atlantic defence organisation.

But the energy NATO proposal was never taken up by the other EU states, with dim echoes of the Marcinkiewicz idea in the 10 January EU action plan on energy saying only that Europe should create an "effective crisis management mechanism" to cope with supply shocks.

Mr Barroso's letter was sent as a response to a 2 March letter from Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Lithuanian prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas to the EU headquarters and to the German EU presidency in Berlin. "In [some] cases, solidarity among member states is a desired objective only," the joint text said.

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"Russia needs clear signals that 'Druzhba' [which means 'friendship' in Russian] concerns all of the EU," the Polish-Lithuanian letter went on, adding that Europe needs to develop new oil and gas supplies from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region to help break Russia's stranglehold on EU energy markets.

A Lithuanian diplomat made clear that Mr Barroso's Samara promise does not remove the threat of the Lithuanian veto, saying that Samara will be the "last chance" for Brussels and Moscow to sort out the Druzhba mess before Vilnius begins to formally block future EU-Russsia talks.

Meanwhile, Poland has said it will not raise the subject of its veto at the 8 and 9 March EU summit because the issue could see important developments on 12 March, when commission, Russian and Polish experts meet in Moscow to discuss the meat trade embargo.

It remains unclear however if a friendly Russian gesture on meat would automatically see Poland lift its EU veto, or if the Poles are angling for wider concessions from Russia such as ratification of the Energy Charter Treaty on market access for EU firms to the Russian pipeline system.

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