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EU Forced To Tread Softly Around Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs
EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs
BRUSSELS -- Behind the scenes, the EU's diplomatic machinery is swinging into motion over the continuing gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to supply disruptions in a number of eastern EU states.

A delegation of senior officials representing the European Commission and the bloc's new Czech presidency departed this morning for Kyiv and hopes to fly on to talks with Russia's Gazprom on January 6.

Ambassadors of EU member states met in Brussels today to exchange views. EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs will attend an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Prague on January 8. And gas supply experts from the 27 member states will convene in Brussels on January 9.

In public, however, the bloc is treading very softly, with EU spokespeople restricting themselves to mild, formulaic responses.

Fielding questions today in Brussels, the European Commission's energy spokesman, Ferran Tarradellas, played down the Russian-Ukrainian row as a two-party commercial disagreement.

“It's a bilateral issue between Ukraine and Russia," Tarradellas said. "Therefore, the European Commission calls for an urgent solution to the commercial dispute between the two countries and for an immediate normal resumption of supplies from Russia through Ukraine to the European Union.”

Refused To Assign Blame

Tarradellas would not comment on the accusations and counteraccusations which have flown between Moscow and Kyiv since Gazprom cut gas supplies to Ukraine on January 1 after the two sides failed to agree on new prices and outstanding debt.

The EU spokesman did note that problems between Russia and transit countries have affected EU gas supplies for more than five years. But Tarradellas resolutely refused to assign blame or say whether the EU sees the most recent crisis primarily as a supply problem, or a transit one.

“The evaluation we are doing is [of] the [gas] pressure that is being received at the end points of Ukrainian pipelines. Why the gas is coming or not is up to the Russians and Ukrainians to decide,” Tarradellas said.

“It is a commercial dispute. It's the only thing we can say,” was how Tarradellas summed up the position of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

The EU is speaking with a soft voice because it lacks a big stick with which to back up its words.

With no central foreign-policy competence, the EU remains without a unified stance on Russia. Although Russia looms large in nearly all calculations made in Berlin, Paris, and the remaining 25 EU capitals, the conclusions can vary greatly.

Secondly, the EU also lacks a joint energy policy. The bloc is by far the biggest importer of Russian gas. But Russia has proved so adroit at exploiting divisions among the member states that the EU has largely failed to use its collective clout in dealings with Moscow.

The diversification of supply routes, supply sources, and the geographical origins of our energy supplies is a long-term policy [objective] of the European Commission.
Thirdly, energy supplies have become a commercial matter for the EU. Gas, for example, is exported by companies which have all been privatized. Delivery contracts are thus commercial secrets not shared between the competing importers. This constitutes another advantage for a monolithic, state-run Gazprom.

As an example of the chaos, EU ambassadors from those bloc members experiencing delivery shortages complained today that some countries are being informed of imminent shortfalls by Gazprom, while others have been contacted by Naftogaz, Ukraine's state gas company.

So far, however, EU officials say the effects of the latest Russian-Ukrainian spat have translated into “irregularities” that have not affected the day-to-day life of EU citizens. Officials attending the ambassadors' meeting were urged to keep the dispute at a commercial, rather than political, level.

EU spokesman Tarradellas said Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania had experienced significant gas supply problems over the weekend, but said the situation has now returned to normal.

Poland also notified Brussels of problems with gas supplies from Ukraine but said it was being compensated by extra deliveries through a pipeline from Belarus.

Adversely Impacted?

An official from Bulgaria at today's ambassador-level meeting said his country's gas shipments had been reduced by one-third. He noted that a similar dispute between Ukraine and Russia in 2006 -- before Bulgaria was an EU member -- had had no affect on the country's gas supplies. Was Sofia being adversely impacted by its EU membership, he wondered aloud?

Tarradellas says the level of gas stockpiles in EU member states remains high, averaging between 70 to 90 percent of the statutory three months' supply requirement.

But, the EU spokesman said, the situation is changing “from one minute to the next.” Apart from an escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian dispute, the EU fears a cold spell spreading across Europe this week could lead to substantially increased gas consumption.

Officials insist that despite appearances, the EU is drawing lessons from the troubles plaguing its energy links with Russia and the transit countries in between. Tarradellas today said the bloc stands by its commitment, first expressed in 2000, to “diversify” its energy supplies.

“The diversification of supply routes, supply sources, and the geographical origins of our energy supplies is a long-term policy [objective] of the European Commission,” Tarradellas said.

Russia currently supplies one-quarter of the EU's gas consumption. Norway, Algeria, Nigeria, and the Caspian region represent the bloc's major alternatives.

Tarradellas was careful to note once again, however, that no diversification attempt must be seen as “a measure against any supplier.”