In recent days, Russia and Ukraine have been embroiled in an unpleasant dispute over the price charged for Russian natural gas transported through Ukrainian pipelines and the insidious involvement of Ukrainian intermediary companies which siphon away money to fund corruption of the Ukrainian government. This conflict has disrupted gas supplies to Europe west of Ukraine, a painful reality to a Europe that relies on Russia for a significant portion of their natural gas supply. It also raises question about the efficacy of the European Union (EU) outside of the domestic sphere.
However, in spite of the potential for Russian gas imports to affect not only economic but also national security in the states of Europe, the EU seems to have been conspicuously absent from the negotiation between Ukraine and Russia that eventually resolved the issue. Even Russian Prime Minister/former president/current strongman Vladimir Putin’s spokesman lamented that Putin was “disappointed that the EU had not been] more proactive.” The deal reached by Ukraine and Russia was given a wary reception by the EU, and The Financial Times stated that the crisis damaged Russia’s reputation as a gas supplier and Ukraine’s reputation as a transit route.
At the end of the day it is the EU’s reputation that is damaged by its continuing inability to pursue a common energy policy. Currently, Europe receives its energy supplies from a belt of countries starting in Africa and looping its way through Russia until reaching the North Sea. There is no coherent policy currently in place to strategically govern the EU’s energy supply, and thus the EU is prone to be left on the sidelines as two states (such as Ukraine and Russia in this case) make deals which have direct and significant impact upon how the EU member states are supplied with natural gas. The lack of progress toward a common energy policy is indicative of a general leadership vacuum since the French presidency expired at the end of 2008.
The incoming Czech presidency of the EU has much work to do in ensuring that the institution takes positive steps this year. Projects such as a eurozone response to the ongoing financial crisis are clearly crucial for the vitality of the eurozone, but in times of crisis all policies are going to be reactive; the EU still has an opportunity to be proactive in addressing its energy sourcing in a coherent, unified manner. The European project has already been set staggering somewhat in 2008 by the failure of the Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland, and as the political ramifications of that setback continue to reverberate, the institution must rededicate itself to forward-looking policy.
Sadly, the Czech presidency has yet to be marked by anything other than a failure to act decisively (how about the EU’s hands-on approach to Gaza?) and a demonstrated ability to alienate its fellow member states through a poorly-considered sculpture in the Council of Ministers building, which features stereotypes of the 27 member nations. The difficulties of the financial crisis and the failure of the Lisbon Treaty created a dangerous environment in Europe in which the disparate interests of the member states may subdue enthusiasm for a more integrated continent. Setback in the European project would bode ill not only for the Europeans themselves, but likely for the United States and the freshly minted Barack Obama Administration.
If anything has been demonstrated decisively in recent years, it is that the United States is ill-equipped to single-handedly address all of the world’s problems. President Obama, already committed to an ambitious agenda both at home and abroad, is going to need a partner to successfully deal with the world’s ills. The old nation-states of Europe upon whom the Unites States has generally relied are no longer equipped to venture forth in the greater world with us. A robust EU, willing to actively become engaged on the world stage, could be an invaluable ally in US foreign policy and the pursuit of peace and stability in the Middle East and Africa. Let’s hope that the EU’s recent sluggishness is an aberration and not indicative of long term atrophy.