Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

Opinion

Can Europe protect its underwater cables from sabotage?

  • The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea last month is now taken as the first major attack on European maritime infrastructure (Photo: Danish Defence)
Listen to article

The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea is now taken as the first major attack on European maritime infrastructure.

In consequence, critical infrastructure protection has gained much attention — including by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The majority of subsea cable connections of the EU run through the UK (Photo: Bob Mical)

In a debate on the war in Ukraine in the parliament last week, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen laid out a five-point action plan. Does this plan suffice?

Her first point concerned preparedness and getting the Critical Infrastructure Directive, which provides new legislation, approved by parliament.

Known as NIS2 the directive encourages member states to identify their critical infrastructures and to ensure reporting of incidents.

While von der Leyen is certainly right that the NIS "will strengthen the resilience of critical EU entities", NIS2 was largely written with cyber security concerns in mind, rather than physical attacks.

Moreover, it does not reflect the specifics of under water infrastructures, that after all connect countries, and are often outside of the jurisdiction of an EU member state.

The second point of the plan is to conduct a "stress test".

This has the goal "to identify whether we have weak points and where these weak points are. And of course, we have to prepare our reaction to sudden disruption."

These tests are supposed to be done by the member states with assistance by the commission and should focus first on "the energy sector", "followed by other high-risk sectors, such as the offshore digital and the electricity infrastructure."

Desktop exercises vs real-world scenarios

Unfortunately, the commission has not provided further details of how such tests could look like. It is likely that they will take the format of table top exercises and scenario workshops. This is in many ways a productive step, as such exercises are valuable in identifying structural weaknesses and gaps in communication. They are also useful to enhance trust and confidence among the state agencies and the private sector involved.

Improving capacities to "support member states in addressing the disruption of critical infrastructure, for example, with fuel, with generators, with necessary shelter capacity" is the third item in the plan.

This is part of ongoing work on the EU civil protection mechanism. While useful to prepare for catastrophic events more general, it is unclear how this component can actually increase resilience and prevent or at least deter future attacks.

Prevention is addressed in van der Leyen's fourth point.

She argues to "make best use of our satellite surveillance capacity. We have these satellites in place. We have the capacity to do the surveillance to detect potential threats." Van der Leyen here refers to the satellite imageries provided by the European Space Agency.

For the maritime domain, these satellite images are commissioned and distributed by the European Maritime Safety Agency.

Satellite surveillance only part of solution

It is hard to see how occasional satellite pictures can contribute to deterrence. Who will analyse the images, how will the conclusions from such analyses be shared, and what action will follow? So far none of the EU agencies has a mandate in this regard.

Satellites are a useful part of the surveillance picture, but they are only effective if they are complemented with other tools, such as the surveillance of marine traffic, of fisheries and cross border movements by ships and aircrafts.

This kind of work is coordinated by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), the European Fishery Control Agency (EFCA) and the European Coastguard and Border Agency (Frontex).

None of them has a mandate, or resources, to conduct the monitoring and surveillance of critical infrastructures.

The EU has ambitious plans for maritime inter-agency information sharing in what is called the Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE).

CISE is led by EMSA and supposed to be operational next year. It has the potential to provide a major tool for European coast guards and other maritime security forces, and also has military component, managed by the European Defence Agency. To improve surveillance, critical infrastructure protection must become a key dimension in CISE and its military component.

Von der Leyen's final point is little more than a general security policy mantra, namely to "strengthen our cooperation with Nato and with key partners like the United States on this critical issue."

This not only brings one back to the endless conundrum of the EU's security and defence policy, that is, how to organise the separation of labour with Nato while avoiding duplication and maintaining an independent posture.

It is also noteworthy that the most important partner for European critical maritime infrastructure protection is not even mentioned. The majority of subsea cable connections of the EU run through the UK.

In our report to the European Parliament discussed in the debate on 5 October, we have outlined a series of other steps that the commission could take to improve resilience.

While our report focused on subsea data cables, these recommendations are more widely applicable to under water infrastructure.

These include to strengthen the collaboration with industry, to enhance repair capacities, to mainstream infrastructure protection in education and training, to ensure that it is an issue on the diplomatic agenda, and to use the revision of the mandate of EMSA and the drafting of the new European Union Maritime Security strategy as initial policy vehicles.

These steps should form part of the plan.

Author bio

Christian Bueger is professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen and a known maritime security expert. He is one of the authors of security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure — consequences for the EU, In-Depth Analysis for the European Parliament commissioned by the Sub-Committee on Security and Defence (with Tobias Liebetrau and Jonas Franken).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Underwater explosions were detected near Nord Stream leaks

Measuring stations connected to the Swedish National Seismic Network (SNSN) detected powerful underwater explosions close to the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. Poland has already declared it "sabotage".

Foul play suspicions in Nord Stream leaks

Sweden's maritime authority detected two leaks on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Tuesday, shortly after Danish authorities discovered a leak in Nord Stream 2.

Cyber-risk from Internet of Things prompts new EU rules

With evermore connected devices on the market, new EU rules aim to minimise cybersecurity risks from innocuous household appliances and industrial operating systems — amid concern over the increasing number of cyberattacks and their cost for companies.

How safe are EU's North Sea wind farms from attack?

Acts of sabotage on wind farms or the underwater electricity grid are likely to be carried out as 'grey zone tactics', state-sponsored sabotage may be disguised as a civilian accident, or carried out from a leisure yacht or fishing boat.

EU-Israel trade agreement must be on table to stop Rafah attack

The EU-Israel association trade agreement enabled €46.8bn of trade last year. Exports rose for both parties by around 20 percent in 2022. As the bloc's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: "Yes, we have the capacity to influence [Israel]."

Latest News

  1. Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza
  2. Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?
  3. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines
  4. EU urban-rural divide not bridged by cohesion policy, report finds
  5. Impending Rafah disaster shows up politics of humanitarian aid
  6. Sweden heading into Nato, after Orbán-Kristersson deal
  7. EU-Israel trade agreement must be on table to stop Rafah attack
  8. 'Nightmare' 2024 sees Orbán struggle ahead of EU elections

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us