EU energy policy should be more open and coherent
Posted On March 22, 2020
Two events, separated by six days, demonstrate how far the EU’s energy policy has moved over the past five years. On 6 September, the taps were turned on for the Nord Stream pipeline, a German-Russian project that created a deep rift in one of Europe’s most important relationships – Poland’s and Germany’s – and caused further ructions within the EU. Janusz Lewandowski, Poland’s European commissioner, on 7 September termed the pipeline a “monument of bilateralism”, a good epithet that nonetheless fails to capture the impact.
Then, on 12 September, the European Commission announced that the EU’s 27 member states had given it a mandate to negotiate with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on the ‘trans-Caspian pipeline system’, a complex set of initiatives to bring gas from the Caspian.
With this mandate, the EU will endeavour to speak with a single voice on one of its most strategic issues – the security of its energy supplies – and toward one of its most difficult neighbours, Russia. That is welcome. Russia’s policy of playing one country off another has created tension within the EU and stunted the EU’s aspirations to be a world player. The mandate may also help the EU’s foreign policy – there is, arguably, no comparable aspect of foreign policy on which the EU has forged a united front since the Lisbon treaty enhanced its foreign policymaking powers.
The importance of the Commission’s new mandate can, though, be overstated. This may prove merely to have been a bid to keep alive the Nabucco pipeline, which depends on Caspian gas. To do this, the EU needs to face up to Russia, since Russia is – with greater success – planning a rival project, South Stream. South Stream may have benefits for the European states that are co-operating (Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia), but it will not bring Europe new gas or reduce reliance on Russia.
The EU’s unity on energy may not yet extend beyond the Nabucco project, but it does increase the prospects of a more coherent EU approach to energy supplies.
Greater coherence should also extend to the messages that the EU sends to the public. Once again, as with other policies in the region, the Commission has argued that greater European engagement will boost democracy. This is serving up 1990s hopes in the self-serving rhetoric of the 2000s. The Commission should stop using what is really a smoke-screen. The evidence of democratisation is pitiful, and the examples of engagement’s limited political ineffectiveness are plentiful – Libya being one, Azerbaijan being another and, of course, Russia itself.
It would be more honest to state that the a decision to seek Caspian gas is necessitated by Europe’s vulnerability. At the same time, the EU should point out that the problems associated with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – bad records on democracy, human rights, governance and the rule of law – are present in Russia and are among the reasons why the EU does not want to depend so heavily on Russia. If the public does not like that, it should pressure its politicians to ‘decarbonise’ the economy – which is, of course, an EU priority.
Stating plainly that Europe relies on difficult neighbours is not an excuse for a lack of transparency. If anything, the trickiness of Europe’s choices adds to the importance of carrying the public along – something not achieved by rhetoric about democratisation, headlines about hypocrisy in Libya and questions about the presence of a former German chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) at the helm of the Nord Stream project.
Greater transparency about energy deals should be part of the EU’s strategy, and the Commission should propose the parameters.
That is beginning to happen. Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, wants major energy contracts with non-EU countries to be scrutinised. In October, Michel Barnier, the commissioner for the internal market, is expected to present proposals that – in some form – will echo elements of the US’s omnibus Dodd-Frank Act, which obliges companies in the extractive industries to disclose payments to state treasuries in the countries in which they operate. All of this will test member states’ unity and sensitivities. But the Commission is right to do so.