Gas crisis underscores need for common energy policy in Europe

Photo: CTK

An agreement brokered by the Czech prime minister on the resumption of Russian natural gas supplies to Europe appears to be back on track, after an unexpected snag on Sunday night brought further delays. The worst-ever gas crisis in Europe’s history, which has left thousands struggling to keep warm, has given fresh urgency to plans aimed at increasing the continent’s energy security.

Mirek Topolánek shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, photo: CTK
After 48 hours of hectic negotiations and shuttle-diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine, the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, was able to give Europe the news it had been waiting for: gas supplies to Europe would be resumed within hours. Both Russia and Ukraine, whose pricing and payment row caused the disruption, had agreed on the deployment of an international monitoring team as a means to prevent foul play in the transit system. Prime Minister Topolanek warned that Europe had merely been given a respite:

“This agreement is a political instrument that should allow the resumption of supplies to Europe. However, Moscow and Kiev still have a lot of unresolved issues such as old debts, transit payments and such, so it is clear that Europe must act quickly to increase its energy security – by seeking alternative sources and alternative routes. We have spent a year and a half preparing to open a debate on a common energy policy. We are now ready to do that, and I am glad the issue has been given so much urgency.”

The ongoing disputes between Moscow and Kiev resurfaced sooner than expected. On Sunday night the Russians failed to turn the taps back on – on the grounds that Kiev had added an appendix to the agreement that Moscow could not accept. Under pressure from the European Commission, Ukraine on Monday signed a fresh copy of the monitoring agreement, this time without the appendix, putting the talks back on track. Moscow once again promised to resume supplies as soon as possible.

Photo: CTK
However for countries like Slovakia, which is almost entirely reliant on Russian natural gas, the solution comes too late. In a bid to avoid a blackout Slovakia on Saturday announced its intention to re-launch its Soviet-era nuclear reactor at Jaslovske Bohunice, violating an agreement with Brussels and sparking protests in neighbouring Austria.

As EU energy ministers assembled for an emergency meeting in Brussels on Monday it was clear that the crisis would have a big impact on Europe’s future energy policy. It has galvanized the EU into action and is likely to result in important decisions aimed at diversifying the continent’s energy supplies. While Russia, currently the source of a quarter of EU gas supplies, is likely to remain the bloc's dominant supplier for a few more years, observers predict that this crisis will spur the EU to pursue alternatives such as gas from North Africa and Central Asia and possibly also increased use of nuclear power. And there are many who say that no matter how much Europe has lost in this crisis, Russia is likely to lose more in the long-term, having gambled its image as a reliable supplier once too often.