'Patchwork' EU diplomacy slows down renewable energy strategy with Gulf

The region could help Europe to import 10 million tonnes of hydrogen by 2030

The European commissioner for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, speaks at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.  AP
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Europe wants to develop its partnership with the Gulf as part of its strategy to move away from fossil fuels and import 10 million tonnes of hydrogen by the end of the decade, politicians told The National.

But fragmented diplomatic efforts and politics are getting in the way, they said.

Gulf countries have the economic and financial power and technological expertiseto be a “key actor” to respond to the EU’s green hydrogen needs, said MEP Hannah Neumann, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula.

“It makes sense. They have the know-how and the sun,” Ms Neumann told The National.

Gulf countries have also shown their willingness to invest in and produce hydrogen for export to Europe.

Germany last week received its first delivery of UAE hydrogen — 13 tonnes of liquid ammonia — but more shipments are expected.

It is clear that hydrogen is about the change the geopolitics of energy
European Commission executive vice president Frans Timmermans

Yet Europe’s energy diplomacy with the Gulf has so far been piecemeal and its strategy to hasten the move to renewables has been hampered by an abrupt switch from Russian gas and a rush for alternative providers.

Despite attempts to consolidate the EU energy market, states have been accused of placing their interests above those of the bloc as it deals with with soaring inflation and the risk of social unrest.

Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz last month secured liquefied natural gas deals with the UAE and Qatar on the same weekend as France’s TotalEnergie signed a deal to expand Qatar’s natural gas production.

Fragmented diplomacy

Ms Neumann, a German politician who is a member of the Greens-European Free Alliance in the EU Parliament, described such initiatives by individual states as “bilateral patchwork".

“What we need is an EU-GCC approach. That’s how you see economies of scale,” she said.

Ms Neumann pleaded for a “straight talk with [EU] big countries” to promote “a truly European approach that is more likely to save the climate".

Robust diplomacy would help to define the infrastructure needed on both sides and accelerate investments.

“Then we can have a memorandum of understanding and see which member states can plug in and what role GCC countries could play,” Ms Neumann said.

Other European politicians are also pushing for deepening diplomatic ties between the two regions.

“There is a great potential for collaboration between both regions Europe and the Arabian Peninsula,” MEP Jose Ramon Bauza Diaz said.

“The region suffers many of the consequences of climate change, but they have realised [this] and want to address this problem.”

With sandstorms and droughts this year, the Middle East is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Speaking shortly after a visit in May to the Gulf with a delegation from the European Parliament, Mr Bauza Diaz, a Spanish politician from the liberal Renew Europe group, said that it was important that European institutions did not tell other countries “what to do".

“We have to trust one another. We have to realise that we want the same goals,” he said. “We also have to put money on the table to finance this possibility."

Mr Bauza Diaz was referring to the cost of infrastructure that needs to be built to develop renewable energies.

The geopolitics of energy

Hydrogen plays an important role in the EU’s plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 as part of Europe's so-called Green Deal that was announced in 2020.

Europe wants to produce 10 million tonnes of hydrogen and import another 10 million by 2030.

Hydrogen is expected to account for 12 per cent of global energy use and 10 per cent of carbon-emission reductions by 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency said.

Over the long term, Brussels favours green hydrogen, which is produced using zero-carbon electricity from renewables such as wind and solar.

Gulf countries are banking on green and blue hydrogen, which is made from natural gas.

"The Gulf is extensively focused on green hydrogen," said Robin Mills, chief executive of Dubai-based consultancy Qamar Energy.

"Blue hydrogen is mainly proposed in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the UAE and Saudi Arabia have major green hydrogen projects too."

Experts have long argued that the EU needs to develop a strategy for the external dimension of its Green Deal.

Brussels “does not appear to have devoted much attention to Gulf countries in this process”, wrote Cinzia Bianco, a visiting research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a policy brief in October 2021.

Since then, the EU in May unveiled a strategic partnership with the Gulf and plans to appoint a special envoy to the region by the end of this year.

The strategic partnership promised “new avenues of EU-GCC co-operation."

Slow progress

Seminars focusing on climate change have taken place in the past months, and Brussels is working on preliminary agreements with third countries on hydrogen imports, an EU official said in an email.

They did not specify to which countries they were referring.

The official said senior EU and Gulf officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia held meetings in the first half of 2022. A meeting with Qatari officials is planned for November.

But progress remains slow. Top EU officials rarely comment publicly on their renewable energy partnership with the Gulf.

The EU’s Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans on Tuesday said he believed that "hydrogen is about the change the geopolitics of energy".

He indicated that the EU was looking at “partners around the Mediterranean and in Africa".

Mr Timmermans did not mention the Gulf.

One reason that could explain slow progress since the announcement of the EU’s strategic partnership with the Gulf is the cooling of diplomatic relations since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“For many in Brussels the positioning of Gulf countries vis-a-vis Russia is quite unclear,” Ms Neumann said.

“Not knowing where they stand in the long run has slowed down the appetite for deepening relations in this field."

European and US politicians widely believe that the Gulf did not take a strong enough stance against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Such accusations are rejected in the Gulf.

Responding to a question from The National, EU climate and energy commission spokesman TimMcPhie on Thursday said that Europe was "very interested in developing partnerships with countries in the Gulf region on long-term energy partnerships and this does include hydrogen".

Geopolitical and energy discussions are discussed separately, Mr McPhie said.

A regional climate platform

One way to enhance climate partnerships between the EU and the Gulf would be for Brussels to create a regional platform to address climate issues, Ms Bianco said.

This could advance its own climate agenda and reduce regional tension between Iran and Gulf states.

Ms Bianco said in a recent policy brief that such a platform could, for example, enable Europe to invest in promoting sustainable desalination. Desalinated water is used to produce green hydrogen.

Cop27 in Egypt in November would be a suitable venue to discuss such ideas.

“The four key Middle Eastern actors in climate diplomacy — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the UAE — have shaped their environmental diplomacy around UN events or initiatives, such as Cops,” Ms Bianco wrote.

Mr McPhie said he did not have precise information about conversations that would take place on the margins of Cop 27.

Energy commissioner Kadri Simson will travel to the Gulf in January.

Further clarity about the EU's climate diplomacy with the Gulf is to be expected then.

Updated: October 28, 2022, 9:08 AM