Russian gas is the big question for EU's small states

  • 2007-10-04
  • By Mike Collier

ENERGETIC DEBATE: Pabriks (left) and Paet both talked about Gazprom as a tool of Russian foreign policy (Photo: Mike Collier)

JURMALA -- Gazprom's threat to cut gas supplies to Ukraine over unpaid bills is being seen as fresh evidence of Russia's desire to intermingle economic and political policies, according to a high-level meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

At a meeting of the so-called "3+3 group" of Baltic and Benelux states held in Jurmala, Latvia, all six representatives agreed that mixing strategic and economic interests was now a fact of life in dealing with Russia.

Asked about Gazprom's threat to cut supplies to Ukraine as a result of a $1.3bn debt, Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said: "Maybe I can speak for all of us. We briefly discussed this new information. There is no doubt that energy plays not only an economic but also a political role in the 21st century Russian-EU relationship.

"I think the EU has to be ready for such issues in the future as well, and I must say that this discussion between Russia and Ukraine is at least partially connected with the recent elections in Ukraine."

The Jurmala meeting is part of an initiative by some of the EU's smaller countries to present a united front not only to Russia's increasing control of energy supplies, but also to demands from some of the EU's larger member states that they should have their voting power restricted.

Lithuanian foreign minister Petras Vaitiekunas was keen to remind the press of the Baltic states' achievements so far, saying "We three Baltic countries have really created a success story."

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."

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.

Because of its wider EU implications, in many ways the foreign ministers' conference was even more significant than another meeting being held just 100 kilometers away involving the prime ministers of the three Baltic states.

Latvian PM Aigars Kalvitis, Estonian PM Andrus Ansip, and Lithuanian PM Gediminas Kirkilas met Oct 2 and 3 in Dikli, Latvia.

The Prime Ministers of the Baltic States discussed matters of trilateral importance as well as current foreign policy issues.

On energy cooperation the Prime Ministers stressed the necessity ofpermanent co-operation between the energy authorities and energycompanies of the Baltic states.

The Prime Ministers emphasized the importance of the integration ofpower and gas supply systems into the energy systems and energy marketsof the EU. Further development and implementation of interconnectionprojects in the region of the Baltic States should be fostered in orderto ensure energy market integration within the EU. In addition, it wasagreed that the power interconnection projects with the neighbouring EUcountries should be further developed thus paving the way for furtherintegration into UCTE and NORDEL systems.

Other matters discussed included Schengen accession and cooperation, economic problems, migration, emissions quotas and visa arrangements with the United States.

The Prime Ministers also reaffirmed their support for Russia's accession tothe World Trade Organization. In this context they underlined theimportance of solving all relevant outstanding issuessuch as the elimination of discriminatory railway tariffs andfulfillment of commitments regarding export duties on roundwood timber.

There was some disappointment however that despite a concerted campaign to woo the U.S. over introducing a visa-free regime, the legislation approved by Congress does not fully meet expectations and as aresult citizens of the Baltic states will still besubject to artificial barriers. The Prime Ministers reiterated that thevisa free regime is one of the priorities of the Baltic States towardsthe US and expressed their determination to continue an open dialogueabout political and technical aspects of the US Visa Waiver Program.

The next Prime Ministers' Council meeting will be held during the Estonian presidency in 2008.