Friday, October 05, 2007

The minnows and power

Two meetings have gone on in Estonia in the last few days – one is of the three Baltic Prime Ministers, Aigars Kalvitis of Latvia, Andrus Ansip of Estonia and Gediminas Kirkilas of Lithuania; the other one is the 3+3 meeting of Baltic and Benelux Foreign Ministers. One cannot help wondering how all these different numerical equations affect the idea of a common foreign policy and, in this case, a common energy policy. (Both are much discussed but neither is really in place.)

It was energy that was mostly on the agenda at both meetings, in particular Russia’s threat to cut off Ukraine’s gas again because of unpaid bills (not really mentioned until the recent election) and the controversial Nord Stream pipeline that is planned to run under the Baltic Sea and to bypass Poland and the Baltic States to deliver gas directly to Western Europe.

If, the Balts reason, the common energy policy will be based on the West European reliance on Russian gas and the Nord Stream pipeline a major part of it, then they are in political trouble, as Russia will be able to shut their gas off without too much repercussion any time it is displeased by completely irrelevant matters, such as the moving of war memorials.
However, the problems associated with adopting a common energy policy with regard to Russia became apparent when BNE asked if unity was possible on issues such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline planned to run below the Baltic Sea, in
which Gazprom holds a majority stake.

Benelux countries stand to enhance their energy security by plugging into a direct supply of gas from Russia, but the Baltic states and Poland would be bypassed, allowing Russia to restrict supplies if it so desires, without affecting delivery into the industrial heartland of Western Europe.

Dutch foreign minister Maxime Ferhagen gave the official EU line, saying: “In general, we in the European union should deal with energy security and energy supplies for the future. We need an energy policy as such in the European Union. It is one of the issues that must be dealt with not only on an individual basis but also in a European approach.

But even Ferhagen’s reply had become somewhat equivocal by the end: “Regarding the Nord Stream line, in general it is possible for member states to have conflicts with suppliers, but there should be guaranteed supplies for all members of the EU including the Baltic states, and that’s where we need an energy policy. I’m not against the Nord Stream pipeline, but I’m in favour of energy solidarity and energy security for all the member states.”
Estonia last month rejected a belated request for survey work in her maritime economic zone by Nord Stream. Finland had rejected a similar request earlier and only then was Estonia approached.

One argument is that the area is environmentally fragile (as it would be after all those decades of Soviet economic decisions) and an overland pipeline would make far more sense in every way. It also would not by-pass Poland and the Baltic States.

There is, however, no doubt in the minds of the Baltic politicians and they are backed by the Poles: the decision not even to investigate the possibility of an overland pipeline was taken for political reasons and Gazprom was instrumental in that.
Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet was much more explicit, characterising Nord Stream as a deeply flawed project from the outset in which “the political reasons were more important than the environmental ones. We find that this is not correct and that is why Estonia finally did not give permission [to Nord Stream] to investigate the Estonian economic zone in the Baltic Sea.”

“We have always said that it was not correct how this project was started, that it was discussed only with some countries around the Baltic Sea and not with all,” Paet told BNE, alluding to the fact that Nord Stream only contacted the Estonian government in its unsuccesful attempt to carry out a sea bed survey after Finland raised objections to the original route.

“There are lots of environmental concerns because we all know that the International Maritime Organization declared the Baltic as a fragile sea area, and that’s why we find that it was not correct not to investigate real alternatives to this route.

“The main alternative was not investigated and the main alternative should be on the mainland, not in the Baltic Sea,” Paet affirmed.
It will be interesting to see how the issue will be resolved, which it must be if a common energy policy is to be created.

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