How Does the Absence of a Common External Energy Policy Challenge the EU's Energy Security?

The EU’s growing dependence on energy imports, increasing competition over energy resources with rising powers taking part in that battle, have necessitated a more coordinated external energy policy among its members. In light of several gas disputes with Russia, which revealed some members' vulnerability to supply interruptions and their inability to take necessary measures, it has become clear that the EU lacks a common external energy policy that is able to deal with these kinds of challenges. In response to these developments, the majority of the member states have shown their support to developing an external energy policy, while the European Commission has made numerous attempts to accelerate the project.

Despite some progress, such as the rise in regulatory activities, the EU has failed to establish a common policy due to the efforts of numerous member states to defend their sovereignty. National preferences over energy mix and historical relations are the main reasons why they are unwilling to give up their national interests. They would rather pursue their own foreign policies with the regard to external suppliers meaning that there is a division in the way that they are dealing with Russia. The absence of interconnectedness between their national markets is another factor which plays an important role in the their inability to forge a common and unified energy policy. Interconnectedness is the core factor for the establishment of interdependence, “as increasing interconnectedness turns energy issues from national security concerns into collective security concerns”. By regarding energy affairs as a vital component of national security, they are reluctant to delegate their competencies in external energy policy to Brussels and this is reflected in the Lisbon Treaty. It confirms the rights of member states to define their energy mix and supply structure, which implies that they maintain their competencies to conduct their own energy diplomacy and enter international agreements with suppliers.

Smaller Central/Eastern European countries consider Russia to be an unreliable energy supplier, hence, most aim at reducing dependence on Moscow and developing relations with alternative exporters. Moreover, they defend working collectively so that it cannot utilise energy dependencies to achieve political goals. On the other hand, the position of Adriatic/South-Eastern European states such as Austria, Malta, Slovenia and Hungary (“friendly pragmatists”) are slightly different because they have relationships with suppliers from Africa and Central Asia. They advocate a less politicized, pragmatic, and nuanced approach putting business interests above dealing with Russia in the energy field. In comparison, quite a few other EU members (Germany, France Italy, The Netherlands etc.) do not regard reducing dependence on Russian gas as necessary aim and some continue to conclude long-term bilateral supply contracts with Russian state-owned companies - prioritizing their own interests over the common community’s and thereby increasing their energy dependence on Moscow. For instance, the biggest importers of Russian gas – Germany and Italy - have both concluded long-term deals with Russia and thereby “handcuffed” themselves. For Germany and other states, “Russia’s role as a key supplier of oil and gas makes Putin a vital strategic partner who cannot be ignored or antagonized”. In this sense, Germany is realizing the new gas export pipeline project of Nord Stream 2 for which several other EU members (Finland, Sweden, and Denmark) who support strategic relations with Russia on the basis of mutual dependency, granted all necessary permissions. Many countries in Eastern Europe (especially Poland and Baltic states), strongly oppose the venture and consider it as a threat to their efforts to get out of energy isolation. They believe that it undermines their plans to build interconnections to Scandinavian nations which might not be interested in the cooperation with Poland and Baltic states after its completion.

The lack of a common EU energy policy is also reflected in the its diversification efforts. The failure of the Nabucco pipeline, which was supposed to bring Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to Europe by bypassing Russia, is a perfect example. The lack of cooperation and solidarity among the Union led to its failure. It would essentially reduce EU dependency on Russia and so it was prioritized by the Commission. Old and relatively diversified EU members like Germany, Italy, and, France however, have prioritized bilateral relations with Russia and supported a direct rival of Nabucco – South Stream as they consider it more feasible. Skalamera argues that “old member states safeguarded their amicable relationships with Russia, furthering their own interests at the expense of smaller and more vulnerable states, poisoning relations within the EU, and making nonsense of the EU’s rhetoric of solidarity”. As a result, the divided position of member states aided Russia, allowing it to take advantage of the situation. It ultimately was able to influence most of the unwilling countries to endorse Gazprom’s South Stream. Consequently, the majority of the EU signed an agreement on this project, which caused Nabucco to fail, while Russia managed to maintain its dominant position in the EU energy market.

To conclude, the absence of a common external energy policy at the EU level is a significant challenge for the its energy security. An ‘every-country-for-itself’ strategy does not allow the Union to speak with one voice and act jointly in energy relations, especially in negotiations with large suppliers. It also decreases the scope of diversification which leads to the maintenance of a Russian monopoly in the European market and puts energy security under Moscow’s influence.

Written by Rauf Novruzov