With the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline fully funded and construction underway, the European Union is forced to reconcile its opposition to Russian revanchism and foreign meddling with Germany’s decision to effectively ensure greater Russian influence in the European energy market. While the implications of Berlin’s decision on its relationship with the transatlantic alliance and the United States specifically have been covered in detail, there are also significant potential repercussions on the status of the European community in general. This move not only strengthens the arguments of Eurosceptic parties across the continent, but also adds weight to Russian claims of European hypocrisy.
The rationale for Nord Stream 2 is premised on low EU gas production and a need for increased supply to meet demands, providing “reliable, affordable, and sustainable new gas supplies.” Except that the gas being supplied is not “new” in the sense that it would have otherwise not been available as a source of supply for European markets, but rather that the same supply is instead being redirected away from non-EU transit countries, specifically Ukraine.
Despite both German and Russian claims that the motivation for the pipeline is independent of politics and centers only around economic issues and energy security considerations, it is hard to argue that there is nothing political about the pipeline. Nord Stream 2 ensures further European dependence on Russian gas imports while also depriving Kiev of transit fees, which are essential to the Ukrainian economy (losing up to $2.5 billion annually). Further, the country’s gas pipeline network is also considered a key element of its defense infrastructure.
Outside of EU-Russia relations or the ongoing situation in Eastern Ukraine, however, Berlin’s decision may also have significant ramifications within the European community itself. Its decision to flout the concerns and objections of other EU member-states effectively undermines the European community as a whole, and potentially alienates other EU governments. It will also serve to further empower populist parties across the continent, which rank highest in levels of Euroscepticism. This move only strengthens the latter’s narrative of a centralized technocratic elite sitting in Brussels and Berlin authoritatively dictating policy to each country. Given that there has been an upward trend over the past 30 years in Eurosceptic politicians being elected to the European Parliament, the negative optics of this move should alarm those who seek a stronger union. Additionally, the deepening of this fault-line provides an opportunity for Russia to sow discord and give credence to their claims of European hypocrisy.
Going forward with Nord Stream 2 additionally increases tensions with EU members who seek a genuine diversification of energy supplies and reduced dependence on Russian natural gas. This includes Hungary and Poland, as well as Southeastern European countries. The latter in particular can’t help but feel additionally slighted by Berlin due to having their own shot at cashing in on Russian energy projects denied. For instance, the cancelled South Stream pipeline is far from forgotten in Bulgaria, or Greece. Governments in Sofia and Athens could have expected significant economic benefits from the planned natural gas corridor across the Black Sea, but the project was cancelled due to breaches in EU law regarding the need for ownership “unbundling” and non-discriminatory access of third parties. Still, the obstructions seemed far from insurmountable and further negotiations between the involved parties could have very well resulted in the necessary concessions to renew construction efforts – that is, until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Deteriorating Russia-EU relations in wake of this event as well as the escalating war in Eastern Ukraine soon made the deal essentially impossible, and it was scrapped shortly thereafter.
The gravest danger to the European system, however, is the very act of Germany covering its ears to the objections of its partners. Understood by many to be the de facto leader of the EU, Berlin will only increase factionalism in Europe with this move. Other member-states, particularly newer ones who have often been at odds with Brussels and Berlin, will undoubtedly remember German intransigence to their concerns as they seek their own advantageous political and economic relations. Subsequently, Berlin’s pursuit of Nord Stream 2 undermines the entire European project.
As the continent’s countries acknowledged their inherent interdependence following the end of the Second World War, a confederacy of sovereign nation-states began to manifest that was premised on the following: acting for the best interest of their respective electorates; and, simultaneously, acknowledging the larger ramifications of their actions on the European community in general. This combination allowed for a natural balance of power to form within the burgeoning European system. It was also the concept of Europe envisioned by Charles De Gaulle, inspired by his natural apprehension towards a powerful Germany independently dictating the political and economic trajectory of the continent.
Naturally, a certain degree of sovereignty is relinquished in joining the EU. This allows for a concerted European foreign and economic policy that is outward looking and effectively addresses problems facing the community as a whole; the idea, however, was not to create a federated republic of Europe. The electorates of individual member-states believe this much as well, as favorable views of the European Commission (effectively the executive branch of the EU and its most supranational arm) consistently rank well below those of the EU or the European Parliament.
The Europe envisioned by De Gaulle actually increased the scope of decision-making for sovereign nations as they joined a voluntary community of nations adhering to the same set of rules and norms. Uncertainty is reduced, and governments can anticipate the reaction of other member states to their decisions. They are then inclined to act accordingly in a manner that pursues their own national interest while forming a reasonable prediction of the repercussions of their actions on future relations. The result is trust between governments that each is operating in good faith with an eye towards intra-European relations. This consistency allows for each to form a decision-making calculus that not only increases stability between countries, but also allows for the community to more effectively work together in addressing problems of common concern.
Germany’s disregard of its neighbors’ apprehensions to Nord Stream 2, especially those closest to Russia in terms of both physical location as well as energy dependence, is sure to undermine trust in this notion of the EU as a confederacy of independent countries. This shortsighted decision supports the narrative that Germany treats the union as its own fiefdom, setting the rules of play while refusing to adhere to them. It also gives fuel to Eurosceptics across the continent, as well as emboldens Russian efforts to influence and disrupt relations within the EU. The next time Berlin seeks to reprimand another member for pursuing its national interest in a manner deemed contrary to the interests of the European community, it can count on being accused of enforcing a double standard.