BRUSSELS -- In a bid to bypass attempts by Russia and Ukraine to blame each other for the worsening natural-gas shortages in Europe, the EU has offered to send in its own observers to supervise the pipeline system responsible for European deliveries.
The offer to send observers is a measure of the desperation gripping the EU. Any observer mission in the former Soviet Union is fraught with complications, and it is only with great reluctance that the EU undertakes monitoring duties in any given dispute.
But Brussels, which relies on Russian gas and Ukrainian pipelines for one-fifth of its supplies, feels its back is against the wall. As of this morning, no gas is flowing through Ukraine to Europe.
Ferran Tarradellas, the European Commission's energy spokesman, said the EU is ready to do "whatever it takes" to ensure gas supplies resume, including manning the pipelines with its own monitors.
"At this point in time the commission is open to consider the possibility of sending observers to Ukrainian and Russian entry points of gas [pipelines] to monitor the flows of gas from Russia through Ukraine to the European Union -- if this is going to help the immediate restoration of full volumes of supply to European Union customers," Tarradellas said.
Tarradellas said the EU would send observers only if both Moscow and Kyiv green-light the idea.
Moscow, which has accused Kyiv of siphoning off shipments meant for Europe, says Ukraine denied observers from Russia's gas-export monopoly Gazprom access to its gas-measuring stations.
Gazprom earlier this week sent a letter to the European Commission proposing to ensure independent monitoring of the gas volumes transited through Ukraine.
Tarradellas said sending observers is just one of option being considered, but failed to name any others.Europe Increasingly Nervous
The combination of cuts in gas supplies and plunging temperatures is rendering the situation desperate in a number of EU member states and neighbors. Most rely heavily on gas to provide heating and produce electricity.
Bulgaria is hardest hit, with 100 percent of its gas coming from Russia and no significant stockpiles. Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia -- all prospective EU member states -- are only marginally better off.
Romania can count on its own offshore gas production to supply up to 60 percent of its needs. Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia rely on diminishing reserves.
Greece, Austria, and Poland are also affected, but could switch to alternative supply routes. For the first time, countries in Western Europe -- Germany, France, and Italy -- are also feeling the pinch.
Ukraine, for the time being, is experiencing no gas shortages. The country uses national supplies for domestic consumption, and says a drop in production due to the economic crisis means demand is low for the imported gas it uses for industrial purposes.
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, earlier placed urgent telephone calls to Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin of Russia and Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine. At a press conference in Prague, Barroso hinted at some of the difficulty the EU has had in dealing with the two sides.
"Prime Minister Putin told me that Russia is providing the gas destined for the European Union, but there are some problems with the transit through Ukraine. Prime Minister Tymoshenko, she told me that they have created no problems with the transit through Ukraine," Barroso said. "They are able let the gas come to the European Union, provided the Russian put the gas in the Ukrainian network."
Officials from Gazprom and Ukraine's state energy company Naftohaz are due to resume talks in Moscow on January 8, prompting some hopes a compromise may be reached. EU foreign ministers will also weigh their options in Prague, and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Barroso will close out the day with an evening meeting in Brussels.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the current EU Presidency, spoke alongside Barroso. He expressed hope that the crush of meetings would help Kyiv and Moscow repair their differences and find a way to resume gas shipments to Europe.
"We will try at tomorrow's meeting in Brussels, at the ministerial level [in Prague], and with the participation of Gazprom and Naftohaz, to find a technical solution to the entire problem, so that with the agreement of the two countries," Topolanek said, "and with the mandate of the participating negotiating countries, a monitoring, supervision international team can start monitoring the transfer points of gas supplies on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and so we can supervise the gas supplies and resume the gas transit."
Gas-supply experts from the 27 EU member states will meet in Brussels on January 9. Possible measures include assistance to Bulgaria and others in switching to oil and other fuels -- possibly including the revival of mothballed Soviet-era reactors in the Kozloduy nuclear power plant.
The drastic effects of the dispute on Europe are increasingly causing Ukraine to be tarred by same brush as Russia. EU spokesman Tarradellas said emphatically that both Moscow and Kyiv have failed to honor their commitments to provide gas to the EU.
"It's not up to me to say how much responsibility each of the two has. Both are responsible for not fulfilling their obligations of supplying gas to European consumers," Tarradellas said.
"And the reasons why we are not receiving gas are due to a bilateral commercial problem among the two," he added. "So, both have to get back to the negotiating table, both have to reach a settlement that is permanent -- immediately."
But, again, Tarradellas said the EU has no plans to get directly involved in the underlying dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
A factbox on how gas gets to Europe from Russia and some of the new pipeline projects aimed at bringing more Russian gas to Europe and diversifying supplies. More