The Crimean crisis, an opportunity for a renewed European energy strategy

At the time I am writing, Russian troops have gathered close to the now Ukrainian Eastern border with Crimea. One can wonder where Mr. Putin wants to go. No doubt that he played his cards at the right time, taking advantage of divided Europeans unable to swiftly react from a single and strong voice to the arrival of Russian troops in Crimea. It is now time for Europe to solve its systemic flaws a strong political leader can play with easily.

While the EU seemed to have learned from its divisions during the Georgian crisis in 2008 when a French-German-Polish delegation went to Kiev following the repression of political opponents by Yanukovich’s administration, it eventually went back to good ol’ national politics when having to face Russia. On the East side of Europe, there are direct concerns – let’s say by analogy – arising from Russia’s claim over a former USSR territory, and advocacy for a strong response to Crimea’s annexation. What is the point of having NATO in such situations if there is no action? On the West side of Europe, economic concerns prevail: would clear-cut economic and financial sanctions against Poutine’s regime, with which these growth-desperate countries have close economic ties, be really worth it? If such measures are directed towards second-rank Russian officials, sure they are not.

Either dependent on Gazprom or on Russian investors, European countries seem blocked by Putin’s strategy. Mrs. Merkel said that Germany is not dependent on Russian gas, but one should not forget the thousands of German businesses involved on the Russian market. And, most importantly, the facts themselves about gas dependence:

EU Member States' dependence on Russian gas
EU Member States’ dependence on Russian gas

And it’s not all about the gas – there is now a debate in France about the opportunity of cancelling the delivery to Russia of two war ships worth €1,1billion. Such a measure would of course constitute a sanction towards Russia’s developing army. On the other hand, it would kill jobs in Saint-Nazaire, Nantes’ historical shipyard. Probably this is why France’s Minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, conditioned such a cancellation to « a handful of measures at the European level« …

Mr. Putin knows all of this, and takes advantage from European divisions. But his poker game raises doubts about the sustainability of such a strategy.

Of course, if the situation in Crimea does not evolve into a civil war, the result will be that Russia acquired a militarily strategic position, helpful a long-term basis. It will also have shown to EU and US leaders that you should always keep in mind the importance of Russia in international relations. Isolating a country which has a veto power at the Security Council might not, to this extent, be the best strategy for international law and practice to keep solving issues that, so far, and despite all the criticisms towards the UN, are usually managed through dialogue.

On the other hand, the Crimean crisis leads the EU – and its neighbors – to question the sustainability of their economic relationship with Putin’s Russia. Excluded from the G8, isolated at the UN Security Council, where China did not join Russia’s veto on a resolution condemning the Crimean referendum, Russia also faces a greater isolation in its traditional area of influence, as after Ukraine finally signed an association agreement with the EU on Friday, the EU aims at doing the same with Moldova and Georgia, not later than June.   The response of the EU, to this day, has been the following one: try to integrate more neighbors to the European economic area through these now famous associations agreements and, more importantly, ask the Commission to develop an agenda for European energy independence. If we take as a starting point for European sovereignty and independence the need to be self-sufficient, the Crimean crisis can be considered as a good precedent for the EU – and its Member States – to wake up and take action.

It is no debate that Europeans have to reach energy independence. The main problem lies in the EU’s capacity to overcome its internal differences to define a common strategy. When it comes to energy, Member States indeed remain free to define their own policy: a clear example of this is how French and Germans differ in this area. While the French, since de Gaulle, have opted for nuclear energy – which roughly represents 75% of their electricity production – the Germans plan to shut down all their nuclear plants by 2022, counting more on renewable energy, but also coal.

The same observation can be made when it comes to perspectives on gas. Environmental concerns about the use of shale gas have arised in many Member States; concerns not entirely shared by the UK or Poland, which see their shale gas reserves as an opportunity for growth. The European Commission, well aware of these differences, therefore issued « guidelines » on shale gas in January. Translation: « European elections are coming. Let’s leave the hot potato to the States ».

In any case, shale gas alone cannot be a solution. In order to meet the ambitious EU’s 20/20/20 targets by 2020 (greenhouse gas emissions 20% lower than in 1990, 20% of European energy coming from renewables, 20% increase in energy efficiency), Europe also has to rely on more renewable energy and imports. Diversifying the sources of imports is therefore a necessity: ensuring gas supplying from Azerbaijan through the Trans-Adriatic-Pipeline by 2019 (with which Gazprom competes with its « South Stream » pipeline project passing through the Black Sea…) and importing shale gas from the USA are, to this extent, indispensable solutions right now.

On a long-term basis, what is more indispensable for Europe’s credibility is to be able to rely on itself first, and then on its partners. This needs solidarity, imagination and concessions from Member States. But the other way around leads, inevitably, to internal conflicts and divergences. To a weak Europe that lets Russian troops invade Crimea without a say.

The Crimean crisis, an opportunity for a renewed European energy strategy