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Alarmed, EU Threatens Gas Summit With Russia, Ukraine

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (left) meets with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek in Kyiv in September. Another meeting may be on the horizon.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (left) meets with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek in Kyiv in September. Another meeting may be on the horizon.

BRUSSELS -- Shocked by dramatic cuts in Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria and other Eastern European member states, the European Union has gone overnight from low-key diplomacy to angry ultimatums.

The bloc's Czech presidency has threatened to call the Russian and Ukrainian presidents to an emergency summit to resolve the pricing dispute behind the shortages. Experts in Brussels, meanwhile, will look at ways of delivering assistance to hardest-hit member states.

The EU, seemingly placid a day ago, was jolted into action by the plight of member state Bulgaria, whose government warned its citizens this morning that the country has just enough gas left to cover their needs for the day.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, said in Prague that he is thinking of calling an emergency three-way summit between the EU, Russia, and Ukraine to discuss the crisis.

This is unacceptable. The Czech EU Presidency and the European Commission demand that gas supplies be immediately restored to the EU...
Topolanek was speaking after meeting the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Together, the two men signed a toughly worded declaration calling the disruptions in gas supply "unacceptable" and demanding an "immediate" solution.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, speaking alongside Topolanek and Barroso, emphasized the EU position.

"This is unacceptable," Vondra said. "The Czech EU presidency and the European Commission demand that gas supplies be immediately restored to the EU and that the two parties -- Russia and Ukraine -- resume negotiations with a view to a definitive settlement of their bilateral commercial dispute."

The public threat of a summit reflects pressure from many member states for a coherent and coordinated EU response to the crisis. This pressure was in ample evidence at an EU ambassadors' meeting in Brussels on January 5, when the Lithuanians led calls for the bloc to become an active partner in the dispute.

Resolve Will Be Tested

The EU declaration adopted on January 6 reads like an ultimatum and if the crisis persists, the bloc's resolve -- and credibility -- will be tested.

It remains unclear whether the EU is ready for such a test. Spokespeople at the European Commission were unable to specify any measures at the EU's disposal should gas supplies not resume quickly.

The EU is still betting on behind-the-scenes diplomacy, with senior officials meeting Gazprom representatives in Berlin on January 6.

But in a sign it has little confidence in its ability to affect the course of the Russian-Ukrainian standoff, the bloc is grimly preparing for the worst.

The European Commission's energy spokesman, Ferran Tarradellas, said that when senior gas-supply experts from the 27 states meet in Brussels on January 9, they will discuss what the bloc can do to assist Bulgaria and other possible victims of the gas dispute.

“There are reserves in different member states that could be used. There could be gas that could be transported there. There could be a switch [to other] fuels," Tarradellas said. "There are a number of measures that could be used the solve the situation in particular member states.”

Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Romania, Austria, and the Baltic states together with Finland all depend on Russia to supply more than half of the gas they consume. Macedonia and other Balkan states are also extremely vulnerable.
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