Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw -
With tensions rising to Poland's east, Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been calling for the creation of a European energy union that would boost the EU's energy security by giving the member states more clout when dealing with powerful suppliers like Russia's Gazprom. Many at home and in Europe's capitals remain sceptical, however.
Tusk revealed the six "pillars" to his planned energy union on March 29, shortly after the Crimean "referendum" that led up to the Ukrainian peninsula's annexation by Russia. The initiative has since become Tusk's pet project and is part of his emphasis on security, which he has put at the heart of his Civic Platform party's campaign in May 25 elections to the European Parliament. Tusk's project also comes ahead of an eagerly awaited decision by the European Commission on the future of the bloc's gas imports, to be announced in June. Tough situations on the gas market are ahead of us, Tusk told the press at the GLOBSEC security forum in Bratislava on May 15.
The EU is creating a banking union and its member states buy uranium together through the EU's atomic energy agency – so why shouldn't it have an energy union too, Tusk argues. "It will return the European project to its roots," he wrote in an article published in the Financial Times on April 21, referring to the European Coal and Steel Community representing the start of European integration in the early 1950s. "Whether in coal, steel, uranium, credit or gas, the principal idea of the EU has always been to bring Europe together, deepening our security."
The six pillars include a gas solidarity mechanism and diversification of gas supply to the EU. Shale gas also gets a mention, as does the "rehabilitation of coal" as a source of energy, part of an attempt to boost Poland's ailing coalmining industry. It is no coincidence that Tusk presented his plan's outlines during a visit to Silesia, an industrial region in south-western Poland and a key constituency in the elections to the European Parliament.
But Tusk's attempt to save coal has not gone down well with those in Europe who are emphasising the need for more energy from renewable sources. Polish news agency PAP quoted Claude Turmes, vice president of the Greens in the European Parliament, calling Tusk's idea "purely opportunistic", as it "instrumentalises the conflict between Ukraine and Russia to defence something that cannot be defended – more coal."
The most revolutionary proposal in Tusk's initiative is the idea of joint gas purchases, says Robert Tomaszewski, an energy specialist at Polityka Insight, a think-tank in Warsaw. Orders would be supervised by an agency modelled on the Euratom Supply Agency, or else by a consortium that would buy gas on behalf of companies. "This would strengthen EU countries' position in negotiations with Gazprom, which would lose its ability to give different prices for its European customers," he explains.
So far, Tusk's idea has won the backing of several European politicians, including François Hollande, France's president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister and the European centre-rights nominee for president of the European Commission. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "in principle" she supports Poland's idea of closer EU energy cooperation, though she was less sure about the details.
But Günther Oettinger, the EU's Energy Commissioner, remains unconvinced. "Gas is a product, not a policy weapon for the EU," he told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on May 15, in the context of Tusk's proposal. Meanwhile, Oettinger has expressed his desire to play a mediating role in the gas row between Russia and Ukraine, which he hopes to resolve by June 1.
The Polish prime minister's idea has also been greeted with some degree of scepticism at home – not least because of the heated political atmosphere ahead of the elections to the European Parliament, with his centre-right Civic Platform and the conservative Law and Justice party battling for first place in the polls. The Russophobic leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has criticised the idea because it still entails buying Russian oil and gas. Poland could become independent from Russian gas "in a short time," he claims unconvincingly.
Although the energy union is unlikely to be adopted in its original form, Tusk's idea looks set to provide the basis for the EU debate as it considers how to reduce its dependence on Russian gas – a process that's become more urgent since Russia's meddling in Ukraine. Even if the idea of joint gas purchases remains far off, Tusk's efforts could at least lead to greater transparency in gas contracts. "Poland's proposal of an energy union is above all a way of putting pressure on the European Commission," Tomaszewski points out.
The Polish government has sent out a "non-paper" outlining Tusk's project to the other EU member states, in the hope that his idea will provide the basis for the discussions in June after the Commission releases its paper on the bloc's gas markets. This means that some of the ideas in Tusk's project could outlast his election campaign in Poland – in some form or other.
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