Berlin has handled the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with unilateralism and clumsiness worthy of US President Donald Trump. On 8 February, the EU Committee of Permanent Representatives was to vote on a proposal to tighten the rules of the common energy market – which have thus far enabled states and companies, particularly Germany and Gazprom, to circumvent EU law. Paris signalled on 7 February that it would support the proposal, igniting debate among European policy analysts and prompting hasty diplomatic interventions from Berlin. Although this eventually led to a Franco-German compromise of sorts, the incident reflected Germany’s increasing isolation on the issue.
While it loves to rant about Trump’s disruptive and confrontational behaviour, the German government hardly behaves any differently when its interests are at stake.
Paris has a direct interest in Nord Stream 2 through French firm Engie’s involvement in the project. Yet the French government appears to be less worried about commercial interests than the prospect that German insistence on completing Nord Stream 2 will drive other EU member states into the hands of the Trump administration. Portraying itself as a fearsome opponent of the project, the administration likely sees Poland and other opponents of Nord Stream 2 as potential allies in a coming trade war with the European Union. For Eurosceptic-led governments such as that in Italy, the debacle over the pipeline vindicates their view of the EU as a club whose rules twist to accommodate the tactical preferences of Berlin.
What happened to the proposal?
The proposal would probably not have prohibited the construction of the pipeline outright but rather made it more expensive and transparent. The proposal would also have given concerned EU countries a greater say in the project and the European Commission a pivotal role in supervising energy contracts, thereby diminishing Gazprom’s ability to distort the European gas market.
When it came out in support of the proposal, France did not perceive this as being an affront to Germany: the pipeline had drawn increasing criticism from across the EU and constant attacks from Trump. Greater EU oversight of the project would have allowed the German government to deflect much of this condemnation without giving in to Trump (which is widely seen as something close to domestic political suicide). By bridging the political divide, the proposal would not only have reduced Germany’s isolation but also reduced the risk that the United States would exploit disagreements over Nord Stream 2 to split the EU.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has only added to the confusion with her inconsistency on the matter. She voted down the European Commission’s first attempt to change EU energy regulations in November 2017, but acknowledged the following spring that Germany needed to address the security concerns about Nord Stream 2 of Ukraine and other countries. Hence, many diplomats thought she would accept the proposal.
The EU’s reaction
Nonetheless, Berlin’s reaction was far from accepting. Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier immediately pressured Paris and, particularly, Bucharest (which currently holds the EU presidency) to water down the proposal. The resulting compromise denies other EU member states and the European Commission any influence on the process of commissioning the pipeline. Gazprom will still be forced to transfer operative ownership of the project to another company – most likely, a Gazprom subsidiary similar to the one that operates the European Gas Pipeline Link interconnector – and to allow other providers to access to the pipeline. Neither provision will change much: such a subsidiary would have the opportunity to hire loyal politicians as board members and thereby widen the Russian corruption network in Germany. And other, non-Russian suppliers cannot access the pipeline because it lies on the seabed. The decision of whether to involve other Russian companies in Nord Stream 2 rests with President Vladimir Putin. As such, the watered-down version of the proposal is only a compromise in the sense that it is better than nothing.
The German government’s handling of the project will cause lasting damage. Several of the arguments Berlin put forward in support of Nord Stream 2 have been revealed as lies:
While southern EU member states perceive Nord Stream 2 as further proof of unjust German economic hegemony in Europe, eastern and northern European states will probably adopt an ever more sceptical, if not hostile, attitude towards Berlin on security issues. Germany’s role as an advocate for Gazprom in Europe, combined with its failure to live up to its commitments on defence, reinforces fears that the Russo-German cosiness of the Schröder era is now a permanent feature of Berlin’s strategy. Efforts to hedge against German influence will become all the more essential in post-Brexit Europe (although they may take more a polite form in Stockholm than in Warsaw). Poland may recognise that siding with the US in a trade war against Germany will have negative economic side-effects, but its security fears are likely to come before economics.
Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine will experience most of the negative consequences of the Russian-German energy partnership. Nord Stream 2 will make pipelines that pass through Ukraine and Belarus redundant. And it is not just the loss in transit money that worries these countries. The Russian regime relies on exports of oil and gas. And dependence on access to pipelines in Belarus and Ukraine currently constrains Russian military activity in these countries. For example, in 2014 Moscow refrained from providing military support to pro-Russian separatist groups in Kharkiv due to the presence of important installations on the gas transit line in the north and northwest of the city. Yet, after initiating the Nord Stream 2 project, Russia started to militarise the Belgorod-Kursk border region, deploying the 20th Guards Army just across the frontier. Under growing pressure to cede its sovereignty to Russia, Belarus may accept an increased Russian troop presence in its territory and subordinate its armed forces to the Russian general staff. This would drastically change the security situation in Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania.
Thus, there is little sense to Berlin’s argument that Russia was a reliable supplier of gas to Germany even during the cold war. In that era, the Russian gas-delivery system had no effect on the military security or sovereignty of other neutral and non-allied states – thereby allowing for the separation of energy policy and security policy. This is no longer the case. However, because it does not see Russia as a direct threat, the German political establishment tends to ignore the security implications of Nord Stream 2.
Germany has no capacity or domestic mandate to deal with the geopolitical fallout of its choices on Nord Stream 2. It cannot prevent Russia from absorbing Belarus, nor from escalating the war in Ukraine. In environmental and climate politics, German leaders often emphasise that one should not commit to policies whose ramifications one cannot control. But, in a mirror image of Trump’s approach to climate policy, Merkel simply bows to ideological stubbornness and the lobbying efforts of domestic industry and special interest groups.