Easing EU Dependence on Russia

Easing EU Dependence on Russia

By Alessandro Torello

After a trip to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan just a few weeks ago to boost support from those governments for the “Southern Corridor” to bring gas to Europe (while avoiding Russia),  José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, is organizing a dinner in Brussels on Thursday to promote the “North-South Corridor.” That’s a day ahead of a European Union summit on which the bloc’s energy strategy is the first thing on the agenda.

These corridors are key parts of the EU’s plan for energy security. Most eastern European countries, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, are still exclusively linked to Russia for their natural gas supplies, a situation which gives them very little leverage when it comes to negotiating prices. It also leaves them at the mercy of any dispute between Moscow and one of the transit countries, like Ukraine or Belarus. Two years ago, Bulgaria and some others were left short of gas because of a price spat between Kiev and Moscow.

The Southern Corridor is aimed at increasing energy security in that part of the world. It is seen as connecting the Caspian Sea to Austria, and supplying Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary with alternative gas to that from the Russian monopolist, Gazprom.

The North-South Corridor is its natural extension. The idea is to link Eastern European countries from Poland down to Bulgaria in an effort to bring them more energy independence from Russia, as well as more energy interdependence among the six nations: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Mr. Barroso wants to get the leaders of these countries around the dinner table to push them to cooperate in creating better physical links among their territories, allowing gas and electricity to move freely across borders, as well as in harmonizing rules regulating the sector. These efforts, the commission says, will increase the region’s energy security by making sure that they can take advantage of all different supply sources. It will also benefit consumers by creating more competition, pushing prices downwards.

The dinner will be the first top-level meeting on the issue. What remains to be seen is the extent to which these countries’ governments are committed to the initiative. Their heavy dependence on Russia, and Russian ownership of many energy assets in their countries, means that Moscow has a strong hand in any negotiation. That’s one thing that’s not going to change for some years to come. No gas from the Caspian is expected before 2017.


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