Friday

3rd Feb 2023

EU commission changes thinking on Russian pipeline

  • Guenther Oettinger is a more Russia-friendly energy commissioner than his Latvian predecessor (Photo: European Parliament)

German energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger on Tuesday (2 March) for the first time signaled openness on behalf of the EU executive towards South Stream, a Russian gas pipeline running through the Black Sea, and seen as a rival to Europe's similar project, Nabucco.

"South Stream could be backed by the European Commission on condition that it meets the technical requirements for security," he said on the sidelines of an energy forum in Bulgaria, AFP reports.

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Mr Oettinger argued that the Gazprom-backed project would "increase the capacity" for gas imports in Europe and "set up a new infrastructure," alluding to the fact that currently 80 percent of Russia's exports to the EU transits through Ukraine.

It is a widespread view among German experts that the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis, which also had an impact on EU consumers, was Kiev's fault and an "alternative route" via the Black Sea would prevent a repeat performance.

Mr Oettinger's comments are a first, however.

So far, the EU commission has stuck to the line that it neither opposes nor backs the construction of South Stream, which is seen as competition to Europe's own project, the Nabucco pipeline, and which would bring gas from the Caspian region directly to southern and eastern Europe via Turkey.

The Nabucco project has only slowly developed since 2002, when gas officials from the five countries involved - Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria - gathered in Vienna and dubbed the pipeline "Nabucco" after listening to Verdi's eponymous opera.

Lack of political support, haggles on transit conditions with Turkey and a pricing dispute with supplier country Azerbaijan have delayed construction.

Meanwhile, Gazprom has mounted a counter-offensive, as it currently holds the transport monopoly on gas coming from the Caspian region, courting southern and central European states for its own project, South Stream.

Unlike Nabucco, which is promoted by gas companies and former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, South Stream is being promoted directly by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who managed to secure a handful of political agreements with Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia or Austria to back the scheme.

Croatia on Tuesday also signed up as a potential buyer of South Stream gas.

If built, South Stream will tap the same resources as Nabucco was intended for - the gas-rich Caspian region, which currently can only export via Soviet-era infrastructure transiting Russia. Nabucco was designed precisely to lower Europe's dependence on Russian gas imports, which reaches almost 100 percent in Bulgaria and Hungary.

Mr Oettinger did repeat the commission line, that Brussels is looking at developing this "southern corridor." "The European Union wants a direct connection to the Caspian and the Middle East region," he said in Sofia.

But his comments came amid strong criticism from Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who lashed out at the European Union and the United States for paying Nabucco only lip service.

"All countries in western Europe and the United States have declared the project a priority. But, what I see is that it is a priority only in words," he said. "The US and the European Commission must make it clear why this project is still at point zero."

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