EU Can Unite on South Stream, If Not Sanctions
Published: July 25, 2014 (Issue # 1821)
Strong suspicions of Russian involvement in the tragic shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft have led EU countries to consider new sanctions against Moscow.
Tough sanctions would involve targeting Russia's natural gas exports. But any new measures will fall short of this. Europe's dependence on Russian gas, and the pipeline projects that accompany it, handicaps the EU's response in the Ukraine crisis.
But if hard sanctions are not possible, the EU should at least make a choice in favor of energy independence from Russia. As a new European Commission forms in Brussels, EU leaders should appoint an energy commissioner with a strong backbone. The new commissioner should also be willing to confront one of the most effective Russian instruments for dividing Europe: the South Stream pipeline.
The EU has long known that it needs to improve its energy security, and events in Ukraine have placed it at the top of the European agenda. Russian gas accounts for nearly 30 percent of Europe's gas consumption, about half of which is transported through Ukraine.
Gazprom's recent decision to cut gas shipments to its neighbor and switch to a system of advance payments clearly put European gas supplies at risk, a danger President Vladimir Putin warned of in his April letter to European leaders. His message came after the EU decided to impose sanctions on a number of Russian individuals and companies, raising the possibility that Putin's warning was, in fact, an implicit threat that he can hurt Europe's economy as well.
The European Commission and some EU governments have therefore rightly concluded that European dependence on Russian gas leaves it exposed to political pressure from Moscow. So, on May 28, the European Commission published an energy security strategy. The strategy contains a set of measures to reduce Europe's overreliance on Russian gas and increase European "energy resilience" by liberalizing its gas market and diversifying its imports. But it is struggling to put this plan into practice.
The June 24 agreement between Austria's OMV and Gazprom to build part of the South Stream pipeline sent the wrong signal to Russia. Alongside a similar commitment from the Hungarian government in early July, it demonstrated that several EU countries valued their economic agendas over a united front on the Ukraine crisis. The ill-timed deal does not bode well for a coherent European approach to energy issues and foreign policy.
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