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Russia and the limits of Europe’s Common Foreign and Security Policy

European dependence on Russian energy resources

, by Paolo V. Tonini

Today, the relationship between the European Union and Russia is showing once more the appalling discrepancy and inner weakness of a European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).


  • Chief Secretary JEF-Bologna, law student at University of Leiden.


The European’s Achilles’ heel in terms of need for gas and energy supplies, and the fact that Russia is the most important foreign gas exporter must be considered. The need for energy is not equally distributed throughout Europe, and such disproportion leads to national interests in contrast to a common, organic and virtuous foreign energy policy. This gives Russia the opportunity to modernise and apply to a great extend the dangerous imperial divide et impera international policy rule.

Another problem is constituted by the different cultures of memory between “old” Western Europe and “new” Central and Eastern Europe. The former does not bring particular grievance to the new Russian regime, whereas the latter has a strong anti-Russian animus coming from the tremendous and illiberal Soviet oppression. This mismatch undermines the possibility of a common political line within the Union.

The way in which the CFSP has been built in the Lisbon treaty and enforced soon after its entering into force gives room to the worst expectations. Despite the clear need for a common European voice, the CFSP’ High Representative is still a minor figure compared to the Council and the Commission, fostering mistrust and uncertainty of Europe’s external partners. Those prefer to deal with single member states rather than addressing the institutions directly, delegitimising the Union on a global scale.

To clarify things, a brief synopsis of CFSP perspective is needed. According to the Treaty provisions, a European External Action Service (EEAS) must be created before a real foreign policy can be enforced, under the aegis of the long lasting States unanimity-rule on the very key-issues. [1] It has been pointed out that Catherine Ashton, The Foreign Policy Chief (or High Representative) has been too strongly charged by media expectations while “the expectations of member states who continue to curb her room for manoeuvre are too low”. [2] The result is that the foreign partners are confused, and the Union is facing the risk that under the combined pressure of both member states (through the Council) and Commission the first High Representative could ultimately fail to complete her task. [3] The question of whether Catherine Ashton could shape the CFSP, or be an instrument in the hands of major statesmen and bureaucrats remains unanswered.

The reality is that beyond the Treaty provisions, both diplomacy and political as well as commercial issues are still related to national interests. This is a paramount problem in international state-to-state relations and if not correctly resolved could force the Union to a minor or at least irrelevant role on a global scale in the next decades. In fact EU member states don’t have the contractual force to contrast other regional powers like Russia, China or the United States in terms of equity and parity, and could be jeopardised, threatened and forced to act in contrast to their real interests. That is what happened the last few years between Russia and EU-member states, and the last humiliating failure of the Copenhagen Climate Conference clearly demonstrates this assumption.

The Union, rather than improving the relations with external suppliers through transparency and reciprocity and framework-agreement with Russia, leaves it to the member states to act.

Given that background, Russia could play a major role in EU external relations. In the energetic field, of the EU-27 total energy consumption, natural gas accounts for 24%. Of this natural gas consumption, the EU-27 produces around 40% itself and imports 60% of which Russian gas takes a share of 42%. Norway and Algeria follow with 24,2% and 18,2% respectively. Overall, import dependency on Russian gas doesn’t seem very problematic at first sight. However, a closer look shows that there is a huge discrepancy, especially between Western and Eastern Europe. In the latter region some countries are fully dependent on Russian imports for their gas supply. [4] It is also necessary to mention that the old Russian Empire is not dead. It’s hidden and has devoted itself to a far less ambitious project than world domination, that is, in short terms, the control of the Euro-Asiatic area by means of energy-controlled producers and exporters. In the past five years, Russia has been interrupting Europe’s gas supply twice by boycotting the only existing pipelines in the Ukraine. In addition to this, Russia tries to avoid hostile transit countries by building new pipelines with bilateral agreements with single European countries rather than facing the Union directly. [5] The Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines in the Baltic and the Black Sea are part of this strategy.

The era of cheap gas is over

This policy would also allow Moscow to keep traditional transit countries under pressure, as supplies to those states could be cut without affecting deliveries to the West. A few events to confirm that: while the French EU Presidency was inviting EU countries and institutions to diversify energy sources and supply routes in December 2009, twelve of the world’s leading exporters of natural gas met in Moscow to create a producers’ group that could develop into an OPEC-style cartel. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that the era of cheap gas was over. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin declared that if Europe refused to finance, together with Russia, the filling of Ukrainian gas storage facilities, “the January tragedy will have a catastrophic continuation”. [6] In this respect, the question of Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and fears of Russian stranglehold on the EU gas consumption seem to be justified.

It should be clear now that in this scenario a European coherent voice is required. Since the Union, rather than improving “the relations with our external suppliers through transparency and reciprocity” and “framework-agreement with Russia” [7], leaves it to the member states to act. In this context, the formal ratification of the Nabucco Intergovernmental Agreement in Turkey on 5th of March 2010 can be seen as the only concrete way to avoid the transformation of Eastern as well as Western European dependence on Russian energy into a Kremlin dépandance. [8] With a young and still weak CFSP voice and strong national interests, Russian projects through national-controlled Gazprom are an energy issue far more concrete than global warming.

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[1As far as the decision-making process is concerned, it is mentioned that contrary to the first pillar rules prior to the Lisbon Treaty, the standard rule is unanimity. On matters not having military or defense implications, the Council may act by qualified majority.

[2European Policy Institutes Network Commentary No. 5 / April 2010. EPIN is a network of think tanks and policy institutes based throughout Europe, which focuses on current EU political and policy debates (www.epin.org).

[3As enlightened in the Commentary sub note 1, the High Representative could either leave or be forced to do so, as the President of the European Commission has a new prerogative of dismissal of members of the Commission.

[4EU Energy in Figures 2009. DG TREN, 10/02/2009; BP Statistical Review of World Energy. BP, June 2009. Available at www.bp.com/statisticalreview and Eurostat. Energy: Yearly Statistics 2007. 2009.

[5In January 2006 Russia did briefly interrupt gas supplies to Ukraine over a payment dispute, triggering criticism in the West that the Kremlin is using energy as a political tool; facing the concrete risk not to receive enough supplies, in October 2006 Germany signed an agreement with Russia on the Nord Stream gas pipeline project in the Baltic Sea. At the same time, Europeans try to conceive a common energy strategy that can be able to enhance energetic independence by financing and building a great pipeline from the Caspian to Vienna called Nabucco, and so bypassing Russian pipelines running on Ukrainian’s Territory. However, in April 2008 Russia and Greece signed a deal on the South Stream gas pipeline, a project perceived as a rival to the EU’s flagship Nabucco. In January 2010 the new years saw the second gas war between Russia and Ukraine. The crisis ended on 20 January with resumed deliveries, higher gas prices for Ukraine, eastern European states collapsing and Western States with almost no gas reserves left.

[6BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring - Text of report by Russian political commentary website Politkom.ru on 5 May - Report by Yelena Pozdnyakova: “Anticipating a Catastrophe. Igor Sechin Makes a Strong Impression on EU Energy Commissioner”.

[7Communication from the Commission to the European Council and the European Parliament of 10 January 2007

[8Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Energy, said that “with this ratification (…) we should all now move forward and make full use of the Nabucco intergovernmental agreement and quickly start the construction of the pipeline for its entire length from Eastern Turkey to Austria. Nabucco has been a political priority. Now it needs to become reality.” More information at http://www.enpi-info.eu.

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