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Approaching winter opens Europe's gas labyrinth

As winter approaches, European countries are increasingly concerned about where their energy should come from. While Hungary, Serbia and Turkey are negotiating to open Russia's gas tap, other countries are instead relying on their neighbours' reserves. Last week, Moldova's available reserves in Ukraine were cut off by Russian missile strikes. It presents Europe with a difficult issue.

Russian-Turkish cooperation is old criticism in a new guise

The damage to the Nord Stream pipeline has left Russia eyeing Turkey as a new gas hub for supplies to the EU. At a summit in Kazakhstan, Putin and Erdoğan met, with Putin proposing the TurkStream pipeline as a way to supply gas to Europe. It is a choice option that could maintain Putin's influence over Europe's energy supply. Erdoğan has ordered the Turkish government to get to work on the Russian gas hub. Under his leadership, Turkey has acted as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine in recent months, with the grain deal for Ukrainian exports being one of the main results. However, energy cooperation between Russia and Turkey also seems to be an outgrowth of Turkey's stance on the war. Despite Turkey's condemnation of the Russian invasion and political support for Ukraine, Erdoğan continues to maintain economic ties with Russia.

The Russian proposal has been widely criticised by the EU, as the sabotaged Nord Stream pipelines already theoretically provide infrastructure for Russian gas supplies. In 2014, Putin conceded to European and US objections to the long-planned South Stream pipeline, which would bring a large amount of gas to key customer Turkey. In its place was a smaller gas pipeline that would supply Hungary and other countries with gas. Putin's latest proposal appears to be a new variant of his earlier plan.

After the annexation of Crimea and Russia's interference in the Donets Basin, there were already plans in Europe to reduce dependence on Russian gas. It was the underlying reason for Europe to protest vehemently against the South Stream line in the first place. The establishment of a Russian gas hub in Turkey effectively increases the gas infrastructure between Russia and Europe, and thus dependence on Russian gas.

EU and Russia tussle over gas supplies

The Russian proposal did not come completely out of the blue. The European Union and Russia continue to quarrel over the sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline. The EU suspects Russia of the sabotage, an accusation resolutely rejected by Russia. Heavy criticism came from the Kremlin after the announcement that the EU is working on a price cap for gas purchases. European ambition to reduce dependence on Russian gas after the annexation of Crimea seems to have borne little fruit. On the contrary, dependence has only increased over the past decade.

In 2011, Russia supplied 30% of the natural gas the EU imported from non-EU countries, according to Eurostat. In 2021, 39.2% came from Russia, which is about 2% more than in 2014, when Crimea was annexed. In 2019, well after the annexation of Crimea, it even peaked at 45.5%. In recent years, too little has actually been done on gas diversification in Europe. The EU has failed to put its money where its mouth is after condemning the Crimean annexation. This omission saddles Europe with a grandiose problem after the total escalation of the war in Ukraine. Buying from Gazprom means de facto sponsoring Russia's war chest. That is a price Europe will have to refuse to pay on principle, whether in roubles (as Russia has demanded) or euros.

Regional dependence on Russian gas as a stumbling block

Some European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas. It is mainly these countries that make new gas deals with Russia outside the European collective. For instance, Serbia, still dependent on Russian gas for 89% in 2019, recently concluded a new deal with Gazprom. EU member state Hungary, still dependent on Russian gas for 61% in 2021, also struck a deal with the Russian state-owned company. Both countries can be supplied from Russia through the TurkStream gas pipeline.... Hungary and Serbia's recent deals with Russia are thus explicable from an economic point of view, but politically polarising at a time when Europe needs to take a united stand against Russia precisely to put pressure on Putin and his war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, other Balkan countries are diligently looking for alternatives to maintain gas supplies. Moldova, for example, recently signed an agreement with both Ukraine and Romania to receive gas supplies after Gazprom had already partially shut off the gas tap in October. However, a new problem arose after the large-scale Russian missile attacks on Ukraine on 10 October. After this, the energy network between Ukraine and Moldova became so damaged that the Moldovan government had to warn the population to restrict gas use.

Moldova, along with northern Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is among the countries completely dependent on Russian gas. Without European cooperation, alternatives for these countries are difficult to achieve in the short term. Northern Macedonia has recently entered into partnerships with Bulgaria and Greece to avoid another energy crisis and is looking at longer-term options to diversify gas supplies, for example with supplies from Azerbaijan via Turkey. With regional partnerships, these countries can give themselves some breathing space for the coming winter.

But the pressure from society is enormous. For example, in Moldova, which is in economic crisis because of the Russian gas issue, there were fierce protests against Sandu's pro-European government because of high prices. On the one hand, Europe encourages Moldova's attitude towards Russia. This pro-European attitude is also somewhat expected by the EU from candidate member states like Moldova on their route to EU accession. But on the other hand, the EU does too little to subsequently reduce the socio-economic pressure this creates in these countries.

What can we expect?

Europe thus seems trapped in a labyrinth of gas dependency in which the only exit is continental cooperation. Given the current state of affairs, the chance of the EU using the Turkish gas hub seems unlikely, but the chance of countries in south-eastern Europe using the hub seems inevitable without intensive European cooperation. European solidarity is one of the key elements in strategically dealing with dependence on Russian gas and mitigating conditions for households across the continent. But solidarity is twofold. On the one hand, it requires a strong collective within Europe to form a bloc against high gas prices and the purchase of Russian gas. On the other hand, the countries most affected by the consequences of this understandable European stance are insufficiently represented. Non-EU countries are all alone in finding a way out of the maze. It is up to the EU to find a solution that is ethically and economically viable for the whole of Europe.

Sources: AlJazeera1AlJazeera2BalkanInsightBalkanGreenEnergyNewsEuractivNewYorkTimes1NewYorkTimes2Reuters1Reuters2Reuters3Reuters4Statista1Statista2

Photo: Message against importing Russian gas in Budapest, 2022 - Flickr