Germany’s Baltic Betrayal

Central Europe Digest
Ryan R. Miller
July 15, 2008

In response to petitions by Polish and Lithuanian environmentalists, the European Parliament (EP) voted last week on a non-binding resolution concerning the environmental threat posed by the planned Nord Stream pipeline. This majority Russian-owned gas conduit, if built, will transport gas along the Baltic seabed from Vyborg, Russia to Griefswald, Germany via the territorial waters of Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The EP’s preoccupation with environmental issues, though well-intentioned, fails to hit at the heart of the matter.
Put bluntly, Nord Stream is a politically-motivated project designed by Moscow to squeeze Poland and the Baltic States. Russia’s determination to do so should be expected, but Berlin has yet to fess up to its complicity. In the name of European solidarity, Germany must admit its mistake and throw its weight behind the overland alternative promoted by the Polish government.

The vote on July 8 stemmed from a report by Polish Member of European Parliament (MEP) Marcin Libicki calling for greater attention to Nord Stream’s environmental risks. In late May, the EP’s Petitions Committee called for greater investigation into the environmental impact of the Russian pipeline and why the undersea route is the best option. MEPs on the committee also suggested that any environmental assessment must be approved by all of the Baltic Sea’s littoral states (including Nord Stream’s opponents), noting the enclosed nature of the Baltic ecosystem. Last week’s vote in Strasbourg called on the European Commission to “evaluate the additional impact on the Baltic Sea caused by the Nord Stream project.”
Discussions of energy geopolitics played second fiddle. The report does mention that EU energy security policy must take into account “the geopolitical dependency on imports and the potential therein for politically motivated interruptions.” However, it also offers praise for Nord Stream as “a project of European interest that would help meet the EU’s future energy needs.”

MEPs should realize that, while there is a good rationale for bringing more natural gas to German markets, Nord Stream’s route looks entirely political; most likely, it is part of a Russian strategy of putting pressure on Central Europe’s Baltic tier, seen from Moscow as a gang of Russo-phobic troublemakers.

The Poles and others genuinely fear that the new pipeline could allow Kremlin-owned Gazprom to play politics with their energy supplies without disrupting exports to Germany. And even if Russia didn’t cut off Poland’s gas imports, it could use the new pipeline capacity to stop transiting gas through the country, draining any revenues that Warsaw receives from its current transit role. Germany’s willingness to go along with this Russian political stunt breaks any spirit of EU solidarity in energy security matters.
Many of course argue that the pipeline will increase Europe’s energy security by reducing the need to rely on transit states. And to be fair, EU consumers have suffered in the past from the antics of certain transit states for natural gas (i.e. Ukraine and Belarus). Yet the “transit risk” argument loses its validity when one considers that a viable overland route exists that would run through only fellow EU members. The “Amber Stream,” being promoted by Warsaw would offer Russian gas a route to Germany via Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These countries have consistent and reliable records, never having stolen gas or run late with payments – unlike Ukraine. Furthermore, the construction costs would not be so daunting. At a June energy panel co-organized by CEPA, Dariusz Bogdan, Undersecretary of State in the Polish Ministry of Economy, warned that Nord Stream’s astronomical costs (more than three times the cost estimate for Amber Stream) would result in higher gas prices for European customers.

But Germany apparently has no appetite for such arguments. From Berlin’s perspective, the Baltic pipeline project is a symbol of the emerging Russo-German special relationship, and if Warsaw or Vilnius have bad relations with their former overlords in the Kremlin, that’s their problem. German leaders perhaps care foremost about not rocking the boat with Moscow. Former Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder failed to consult Poland before committing to Nord Stream in 2005, and now Angela Merkel’s government cannot seem to shed its infatuation with Russian business power. Not surprisingly, as the plenary vote on Libicki’s report neared, Lithuanian MEPs complained that the Germans were engaged in “unprecedented lobbyism” in favor of Gazprom’s position.

Regardless of whether the Commission undertakes an independent environmental assessment, it is unlikely that we will hear discussion of the politics surrounding Nord Stream. Rather, it appears that environmental language is the only one that Brussels understands, forcing Polish and Lithuanian officials to frame their opposition in these terms. Germany’s Baltic betrayal will continue to be masked by this language until the country’s leaders abandon Nord Stream and support an overland route.

Ryan R. Miller is a research analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for European Policy Analysis.