TCSS Security Commentaries #028

In an attempt to break away from the dependency on Russian gas supplies, the European Union must not only face persistent disunity at its core but reevaluate the role that it can play on a world political stage. Deliberate sabotage and large leaks in Nord Stream 1 and 2 on September 27 will further escalate EU-Russia tensions and intra-EU divisions.

Milan Thiée, University of Heidelberg

The EU’s Gas Emergency Plan went into force on August 9, calling on member states to voluntarily reduce their gas consumption over the winter in response to Moscow’s “weaponization” of energy supplies. In July, many European countries were on high alert as Russia’s state-owned energy corporation, Gazprom, announced multiple cuts in critical gas deliveries via the Nord Stream pipeline due to “force majeure.” While Gazprom claimed “extraordinary” maintenance circumstances, Germany’s minister of economic affairs accused Putin of playing a “treacherous game,” suggesting geopolitical factors behind the supply cuts. One of the turbines Gazprom claimed for the decrease in gas deliveries had been stuck in Canada due to sanctions against Russia.

Intending to cut dependency on and vulnerability against Russia, the European member states now passed a Gas Emergency Plan. It mandates EU countries to curb their gas consumption by 15% from August to the end of March 2023, based on a five-year average of the same time frame. Optimistic voices, such as the head of the German Federal Agency for Electricity (Bundesnetzagentur), Klaus Müller, predict that the plan could end the soaring gas prices, potentially even pushing them back down. At the same time, the commitments would contribute to ensuring sufficient gas supplies to make it through the winter season.

Landfall facilities of the ‘Nord Stream 1’ gas pipeline in Lubmin, Germany  (Source: Reuters)

However, the plan had also been substantially watered-down since the Commission published its first proposal of an emergency strategy. The original plan allowed Brussels to trigger a Union-wide alert that required mandatory gas demand reductions for all member states. The latest plan requires the European Council to launch a Union-wide alert or more than five member states to declare an emergency at the national level – ultimately making mandatory saving targets less likely. Furthermore, the agreement now comes with numerous opt-outs and exemptions for individual states and the reservation that every country may curb its gas demand “with measures of their own choice.”

At the same time, civilian groups and climate change campaigns have pointed out the detrimental effects of the strategy on the population and the environment. Compared to last year, gas prices throughout Europe have more than doubled. Germany’s government recently announced that people should prepare themselves for an increase in energy expenditures of “several hundred euros” per household this winter, especially affecting precarious social groups. At the same time, circumventing reliance on Russian gas by shifting towards liquefied natural gas (LNG), an idea entertained by many European governments and the energy industry, has sparked criticism due to its potential to exacerbate atmospheric carbon levels further.

Most prominently, however, the scramble to reach an agreement has highlighted chronic divisions that have plagued the bloc for decades. The economic heterogeneity and the financial crisis of the last decade have given rise to a climate of distrust among member states and stereotypes of an austere north vis-à-vis a rather lax south. This general suspicion was reflected by Spain, Portugal, and Greece expressing doubts about the plan, worrying that imposing target mandates would burden the economy and population too much. Meanwhile, Germany pushed for the proposal in the name of the entire Union’s interest. Still, national interest is the prime consideration, given that Germany is among the most dependent on Russian gas. It further antagonized many southern member states to feel trounced and imposed upon by the north.

In addition to responding to climate change and pandemics, the EU must respond to the paradigm shifts in the global order and challenges. The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is considered to be a Union response. Yet, the Union is afflicted with distrust and divergences that will persist – even in the face of war at Europe’s doorstep and the threat of intensified great power rivalry between the US and China.

Milan Thiée is an undergraduate Political Science and Anthropology student at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 2021 and 2022, he studied at National Taiwan University as a recipient of the MOFA Taiwan-Europe Connectivity Scholarship.