Robert HARNEIS -TDO- (France)- The EU is in a state of diplomatic confusion over what its attitude should be to US threats of sanctions against Nord Stream 2 (NS2). The Navalny affair is making things worse.
Three US Senators have threatened the little port of Mukran with ‘financial ruin’ if it continues to acts as the base for the work to finish the 1230 km NS2 gas pipeline directly connecting Russia with Germany under the Baltic.
There is nothing new about US hostility to Europeans buying gas from Russia. Since the 1980s Washington has opposed the installation of pipelines, originally Soviet, through Poland and Ukraine. But the Europeans went ahead and the US accepted the situation reluctantly. Russian gas is cheap and normally reliable. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama opposed Nord Stream 1 but eventually accepted that it would be built in the face of a united EU determined to go ahead.
Washington has always insisted that the EU should not give money to Russia when they rely on the US for military protection. The EU takes this with a pinch of salt because the US itself has bought Liquid Petroleum Gas LPG) from Russia recently and regularly bought space rocket engines and even military helicopters in the past.
The Russo-German decision to go ahead with a doubling of the capacity of Nord Stream 1 in 2015 was taken against a much changed political background. Germany and Austria supported by the Dutch and others were keen to go ahead in the face of declining gas production in Holland and the UK. Germany especially needs the gas to generate relatively clean electricity as it runs down its nuclear industry.
However the arrival as members in the EU of Poland and the three Baltic states who are hostile to Russia, for historical reasons, has split the EU and caused Brussels itself to have divided loyalties. The US influence in these states is especially strong. The US offers them military support against any Russian threat and they support the US in its desire to separate the EU from Russia.
The EU Third Energy Package has been put together to allow Brussels to attempt to control the supply of energy from outside. The Russians would say it is to hinder Russia, and its company Gazprom, from freely supplying the EU market. Some of its provisions are of dubious legal merit as they are retrospective.
Relations between the EU and Russia have deteriorated because of the political upheaval in Ukraine which resulted in an anti-Russian government, a civil war and Russia reuniting with the Crimea and Sevastopol. These events caused the EU, under US pressure, to impose sanctions on Russia and for Russia to return the compliment on the EU.
In the background is the US desire to sell its LPG to the EU and the desire to protect the Ukraine government and, to a lesser extent Poland, from financial loss, if Russia benefiting from the new pipeline, stopped transiting gas
Thus Increased US sanctions at the end of 2019 caused the Swiss pipelaying company Allseas to stop work leaving 6% of the pipeline unfinished. Most European companies would rather pay damages to Gazprom for breach of contract than face US sanctions.
Russia responded by bringing its own pipelaying vessel the Akademik Cherskiy from the Far East, with a military escort all the way.
No sooner had German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would cooperate in the completion of the project and 24 of the EU 27 joined in a protest against US interference in UE internal affairs, than the Navalny poisoning affair further complicated the political scene.
Russian opposition figure Alexis Navalny fell ill on a plane journey from Tomsk to Moscow. The Russian government and President Putin were immediately accused of poisoning him with a deadly substance… that did not kill him.
The uproar in Belarus over President Lukashenko’s reelection with over 80% of the votes has further poisoned the atmosphere.
Despite all this a solid block of Western European members want the pipeline finished and of these Germany, in particular, is the paymaster of the cash strapped EU.
The great majority of the member states feel that whatever their views the US has gone too far in interfering in EU affairs. This time it is mainly Germany that is targeted but who may be next?
So it was that EU foreign ministers met to discuss the affair at the end of August. A spokesman declared that it was EU policy that extraterritorial sanctions against NS2, Cuba, Iran and the International Criminal Court were against international law.
What representations had been made to Washington? The German government told a group of businesses that the communication with the US state department had the status of a diplomatic ‘démarche’.
The Poles replied that it couldn’t have been a démarche because only 24 member states were in favor and for it to have that status all 27 states must agree.
Warsaw then denied that it had boycotted the meeting but said it had only been there as an observer.
Brussels was itself confused first saying that a ‘démarche’ had been delivered by video conference. At the same time another spokesperson said that it was an ‘informal démarche’ because it only represented 24 member states.
Washington will be happy to see that, even under a German presidency, the EU is not likely to become a powerful actor on the international scene anytime soon and that a rapprochement with Russia is not on the table either.
However the fact that 24 out of 27 member states were prepared to protest to the US about extra territorial sanctions is a warning that European docility cannot be taken for granted forever. Washington is a power in Europe but so is Germany.
Germany has threatened the Russia government with unspecified but ‘targeted’ sanctions if no ‘explanation is forthcoming regarding the alleged poisoning of Navalny in the ‘coming days’.
The situation is further complicated for Berlin by the fact that the NS2 port of Mukran is in Chancellor Merkel’s own parliamentary constituency and local businesses and voters expect her to get the pipeline finished and safeguard their jobs. Germany has national elections next year.
A straw in the wind is a statement by the Swedish government that is known to be hostile to Russia but has said that there is no question of reversing the consents granted for the pipeline. As the Swedish Prime Minster Stefan Löfven said on 5 September ‘as a state, we have taken all the decisions about the granting of a construction permit for NS2. It is very important for us that international law is respected’. As far as Navalny is concerned he said that ‘it is the responsibility of the Russian authorities to in enquire into the incident and to bring those responsible to justice.’
The EU has never caved in to US pressure before over gas pipelines from the Soviets and now Russia. Will this be the first time?