Across the pond, the E.U. government announced a groundbreaking initiative to bridge longstanding gaps in Europe’s energy infrastructure. Depending on how it’s implemented, it could have a major impact on our own foreign policy as well.
The centerpiece of the plan, released by the European Commissioner for Energy, is a list of 248 “Projects of Common Interest,” or PCIs, spread across Europe—everything from underwater cables in Cyprus to electrical substations in Austria.
But the most interesting aspect of the plan is one Brussels hasn’t flaunted: the several pieces of infrastructure with large sections beyond E.U. borders.
There’s the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, which would transport natural gas underneath the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. It would connect to another large PCI, the Trans Anatolia Natural Gas Pipeline running from Azerbaijan across Turkey. That, in turn, would link with the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, moving the gas across Greece and Albania to Italy.
In the south, meanwhile, the list also proposes a new natural-gas pipeline running under the Mediterranean from Algeria to Sardinia and onward to the Italian mainland.
Notice a pattern yet?
The most ambitious infrastructure projects on the list aren’t merely a major investment in Europe’s cohesiveness. Rather, they represent the degree to which European leaders want to avoid one energy exporter in particular: Russia.
Russia, the Odd Man Out
In 2010, Russia provided 31 percent of the E.U.’s natural gas and 34 percent of its crude oil, according to Eurostat. The extent to which much of Europe is dependent on Russia for energy is a perennial fear of European leaders, particularly as the E.U. admits more former Communist bloc countries whose infrastructure is tied to Russia.
Apart from being a point of potential diplomatic tension, the existing setup also impacts energy prices for European consumers. The Russian oil giant Gazprom is infamous for locking E.U. energy providers into monopolistic multi-year contracts.
In light of this, the inclusion of the pipelines in the PCI list shows the E.U. may begin to play a more aggressive role in ensuring a competitive European energy market. The Century Foundation’s Allison Good has written about Washington’s willingness to overlook Azerbaijan’s questionable human-rights record for this very reason. With the PCI list, it appears Brussels is ready to do the same.
Moreover, it hints at a possible new dynamic for our own diplomatic relations with Russia, one where the ability to supply Europe with natural gas becomes a new bargaining chip in dealing with Moscow over issues like the war in Syria.
While Russia can clearly dominate the market with its pipelines, the PCI list also calls for several new European terminals for liquid natural gas, American exports of which are growing steadily.
The Hardest Route
Such changes will not come quickly. Brussels has only earmarked $8 billion in grants for all E.U. energy needs, so its financial role in underwriting a non-Russian pipeline would be negligible compared to the money Gazprom can spend on its own networks.
But as the E.U.’s center of gravity moves ever farther east, Brussels will find it has little choice but to assume a tougher stance toward Moscow. Doing so will be nothing less than a sea-change in the way Europe conducts its foreign policy, given E.U. leaders’ longstanding fear of undermining member states’ sovereignty.
Against Russia, though, nothing less than a unified European policy will suffice. As the energy issue shows, the true test may yet be in the pipeline.
Photo credit: Flickr, Creative Commons