Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

Why Turkey is crucial to solving Europe’s gas conundrum

  • "Ukraine's prospects for a peaceful future will markedly increase if relieved from its status as energy transit hub between East and West" (Photo: naftogaz.com)

Europeans are said to lack geopolitical nous. They think too narrowly, and are loath to use coercive tools to achieve strategic objectives.

The EU’s recent proposal to create an Energy Union was an opportunity for Europe to prove this sentiment wrong, and show that Brussels has ideas on how to link continental energy policy to geopolitical ends, and come up with a long-term solution to our problems caused by the heavy dependence on Russian gas.

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  • Erdogan and Putin - "it unlikely they will make joint pressure on Europe" (Photo: Government of the Russian Federation)

Instead, the proposal was largely an exercise in meekness. In thinking geopolitically, Europeans could do worse than taking a cue from Cold War détente diplomacy, when Nixon and Kissinger brought a third partner into the bilateral standoff with the Soviet Union.

Today, Europe could achieve the same with Russia by bringing Turkey into the equation, and pursue a veritable policy of energy diversification.

Europe’s woes with energy security are most clearly on display in the current conflict in Ukraine: various key pipelines that cross the country add to its strategic importance for both East and West, and have led to anxiety about stable supplies in both Brussels and Moscow.

To allay this uncertainty, Gazprom, Russia’s gas behemoth, is seeking to find alternatives to using Ukraine as a transit country and to diversify its portfolio of gas recipients by turning to China and Turkey.

Following the cancellation of the South Stream pipeline, Russia proposed to build a pipeline to Turkey, from whence gas would be supplied to the Turkish-Greek border.

The EU should welcome this initiative for multiple reasons.

Erdogan and Putin

One, routing Russian gas through Turkey solves some big issues for both Russia and Europe. For Russia, it means tapping into a growth market, reducing uncertainty about future exports.

For Europe, it means gas supplies would transit through a country that is much less susceptible to strong-arming by Moscow, and more reliable overall, witness Turkey’s track record with the pipelines crossing the Caucasus.

For Turkey, the advantages would be that it becomes the indispensable Eurasian energy bridge, giving it more clout vis-à-vis Europe, and that it could negotiate a bigger discount from Gazprom than it already enjoys.

And in spite of the much-touted similarities between the Turkish and Russian presidents, Erdogan and Putin, it is unlikely they will collude to exert the kind of pressure on Europe as Russia did in 2006, 2009, and 2014.

Their historical enmity and diverging geopolitical interests – think of Syria and Cyprus- are likely to prevent this from happening.

Iranian opportunities

Secondly, Europe could further improve its energy security if the new Trans-Anatolian Pipeline crossing Turkey that is to carry gas from Azerbaijan would also supply gas from Iran.

While the proposed Energy Union is silent on Iran’s, gas reserves -second only to those of Russia- they could make a significant difference in helping to reduce Europe’s dependence on gas from Russia.

Bringing Iran into the fold brings several other opportunities: it provides a bargaining chip in the negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear programme; it opens the prospect for future gas supplies from Central Asia obviating the need for a politically fraught Trans-Caspian pipeline; and Iran could help to ensure that Turkey will not turn off the tap on a whim.

In 2012, Turkey imported 18 percent of its gas from Iran; a figure that’s set to increase. Furthermore, existing pipelines connecting the two countries can be upgraded and expanded, meaning that Iran could be linked up to Europe’s pipeline infrastructure with relative ease.

Ukraine

Thirdly, the EU would draw evident geopolitical advantages from an energy diversification plan underpinned by a Russia-Turkey pipeline.

For one, a greater choice of suppliers leads to a reduced ability for any one of these to coerce Europe, while the chances of a motley crew including Russia, Iran and possibly Azerbaijan conniving against Europe seems remote.

In fact, these countries would also benefit from such a strategic course. For Iran, it is an opportunity to wrest itself out of its international isolation and strengthen its ties with both Turkey and countries in Central Asia.

The fact that EU Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic indicated that he considers engaging with Iran is an encouraging sign.

For Russia itself, a linkup with Turkey advances its own diversification strategy, while bringing supplies to the EU border makes that Russia will enjoy a second export route to Europe after all.

And let’s not forget Ukraine: if relieved from its status as energy transit hub between East and West, its prospects for a peaceful future will markedly increase, while a thorough energy sector reform, in combination with ‘reverse flows’ from Europe, could help keep Ukraine’s houses warm.

Setting an energy strategy in motion that takes a broad view as outlined here shows that Europeans have a knack for geopolitics after all.

Willem Th. Oosterveld and Sijbren de Jong are analysts at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies

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