Russian gas

Russia's Vladimir Putin at the launch of South Stream's Black Sea pipeline in 2012

Is it possible that, once again, one of Europe’s biggest strategic concerns ends up hinging on a Balkan intrigue?

This time, it is the Ukraine crisis, Europe’s fears about its energy security – and the influence of the king-making junior coalition party in the Bulgarian government, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

The concerns of Bulgaria’s small ethnic Turkish party may seem worlds away from the geopolitical confrontation between the Kremlin and the west. But on the group’s narrow shoulders could lie the fate of the landmark South Stream pipeline, a project that many believe will further cement Russia’s hold on Europe’s gas supplies. 

As European leaders gather in Brussels for a summit meeting nominally dedicated – for the first time – to energy policy, one uninvited guest is looking on with some dismay: Russia.

High on the agenda is energy security. Which is a polite way of saying that European leaders are discussing how the bloc can break its dependency on Russian gas. In some parts of the EU – notably among the new member states of central and eastern Europe – that policy goal has become an obsession.

“We are totally dependent,” said one Lithuanian diplomat. “Whatever Gazprom says, we pay.” 

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. 

It’s striking that the Czech constitutional court announced its approval of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday morning just as the prospect of another Russian gas import crisis began to loom on the EU’s horizon.  For even though the news from Prague is welcome, a moment’s reflection is all you need to remind yourself that the Lisbon treaty will, in and of itself, do very little to help the EU address its most serious foreign and economic policy problems.

The sheer sense of relief at adopting a new EU treaty – it’s taken eight years, required two different texts, gone through three failed referendums and caused endless trouble in countries such as the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK – risks fostering the delusion that everything will be better once Lisbon is in force.  But this is to fall into the trap of assuming that process can substitute for substance (see Monday’s blog on how the same fallacy affects the EU’s approach to relations with other big powers).