March 3, 2016
Leaders across the continent have made it one of their priorities to move towards greater energy independence for the European Union. But who is the driving force here: The EU or its individual member states? Two interconnected factors which are essential to the issue may help us explore this question: Energy infrastructure and Geopolitics.
Infrastructure is no longer all about pipelines: the electricity network needs to be built on a diverse mix of energy sources, including coal, nuclear and alternative sources, all the while taking into account new technological advancements. In this regard the vulnerability to cyber-attacks is the most prominent issue at the moment, as we have seen for example with last year’s attack on Ukraine’s electricity which lead to a partial blackout. But cyberspace aside, production cycles need to be adapted to new technologies and standards. This does not only relate to interconnection links, where compatibility is clearly needed, but also to market needs in general. This is a central step towards a Energy Union worthy of its name.
Of course pipelines are still relevant. In this field there has been a rapid succession of projects: Nabucco died while South Stream was rising, then South Stream died and left room for Poseidon II, announced two days ago, where the Russian-Turkish leg seems to have been replaced by the Russian-Bulgarian leg. Once a pipeline project appears to no longer be feasible, another one is appearing promising. This is where geopolitics comes into the picture, as feasibility depends on changes in the geopolitical environment. These pipeline projects can therefore serve as a sort of indicator to tell us whether the EU is the geopolitical player here or if it’s the EU member states. The issue of energy infrastructure can thus show the degree of the European cohesion when it comes to energy security and security in general. The discourse on EU leadership is often similar to what we hear on the refugee crisis – more collaboration on the European level is regarded as key to a solution of the problem.
Thus between establishing the interconnected market that would lead to a true Energy Union and playing with pipeline projects, we can discern various degrees of energy independence for the EU and accordingly for its member states.
But how united are we when it comes to energy security? The pipeline projects Nord Stream 2 as well as TurkStream aim at avoiding the passage through Ukraine to Russia’s Mediterranean customers. Nord Stream 2 looks into establishing a route to deliver Russian gas to Italy that circumvents both Ukraine and the Balkans through which the pipeline that is currently getting gas to Italy passes. While this follows the logic of business it contradicts the EU declarations for ensuring security. When we remember that one of the EU’s declared goals is securing both its Eastern and Southern frontier, it may not be a good idea to increase the risk for a sudden stop of gas deliveries to the Balkans. Especially when the EU has to deal with a refugee crisis.
Collaboration is the major test that the EU member states need to pass. This is true when dealing with the effects of the socio-economic crisis, when restoring financial stability within the eurozone, when understanding specific security needs, including those relating to the Eastern and the Southern borderlines, when working in establishing the energy union – which, in many ways connects all of the above. Understanding and administering problems collaboratively would increase peoples’ trust in the ability of the EU to remain united. While this may not sound right for Brussels institutions, it is them who, in many ways, need to build those bridges of trust. And not forget about the geopolitical balance – especially when considering the sources for potential problems.
In the grand scheme of things, the geopolitics of Eastern Europe and the Middle East meet in Turkey. The country that is bridging the continents is as important for energy routes as it is for dealing with the current refugee crisis. Ankara clearly is conscious of its highly important balancing role in the area – bordering both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It is also aware of the two major crises involving Russia, a friend turned foe. Countries in the Balkans, with their proximity not only to the actors involved but also to the geopolitical fold lines, are much more sensitive to these interrelations. Their Western neighbors could take a leaf out of their book.Antonia Colibasanu