Geography drives EU energy battle as landlocked nations seek time and money

Nations reliant on Russian oil pipelines call for solidarity from neighbours

A fuel tanker passes a sign for the Druzhba oil pipeline near Samara, Russia. Reuters
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Geography is dictating politics in Europe’s tug-of-war over energy, with landlocked nations who cannot look to the sea to replace Russian fuel supplies seeking “time and money” to find alternatives.

After weeks of diplomatic stalemate, the European Union’s 27 leaders will seek a breakthrough at talks on Monday on how to phase out dependency on Russian fossil fuels ― after the war in Ukraine sparked a scramble to stop wiring money to President Vladimir Putin and defuse one of his main geopolitical weapons.

To that end, the EU has signed a deal with the US to deliver liquid gas by sea, Germany is looking to the Gulf to fill the terminals hurriedly being built on its coast, and four nations plan to fill the North Sea with wind turbines. Greece sees an opportunity to ship energy from across the Mediterranean.

But all these initiatives rely on exploiting Europe’s waters, which is of little use for the inland countries who have for years relied on Russian pipelines to make up for their geographical disadvantage. Several officials have identified landlocked countries as a central issue in the talks.

A proposed EU embargo on Russian oil, which needs approval from all 27 EU nations, has languished in diplomatic committees for weeks ― to the growing frustration of Ukraine as the war nears 100 days of fighting. Soaring fuel prices have led to concerns over whether any sanctions could be sustained.

The question of oil sanctions are expected to be put on the back burner at next week's talks as leaders discuss proposals for a wider energy revamp known as RePower EU, which calls for import-dependent countries to find a way around Russia before 2030.

Five EU countries are landlocked. Of these, Hungary is the main holdout against oil sanctions while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have asked for more time. Austria initially opposed an embargo but now says it can live with one, while small Luxembourg gets most of its gas from Norway.

European countries want to weaken the grip that Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, has over their power grids. AFP

Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long been regarded as the EU’s most Kremlin-friendly leader, is the most outspoken critic of sanctions. Like a number of its neighbours, Hungary has until now sourced most of its fossil fuels from Russia.

Mr Orban has compared the effect of an oil embargo with a nuclear bomb being dropped on his country, and his government wants sanctions on pipelines to be dropped altogether and any ban to apply only to shipping.

In a letter to European Council president Charles Michel, Mr Orban said leaders should avoid tackling oil sanctions at all in their meeting on Monday and Tuesday, a source close to the talks said.

“If we all look at the map in Europe, and we are looking for the blue colours which are the sea … for us, this challenge is completely different,” said Judith Varga, Hungary’s justice minister, at preparatory talks in Brussels this week.

Officials from the Czech Republic and Slovakia distance themselves from Mr Orban by saying they favour an oil embargo in principle, but say they cannot be expected to make it happen overnight. Unlike Hungary, the Czech and Slovak governments have sent military aid to Ukraine.

Several countries have asked for a transition period to phase out their reliance on Russian fossil fuels, with Slovakian diplomats asking for three years in talks among EU ambassadors and Hungary saying it would need five.

Slovakia, which lies on a transit route from Russia, will go to next week’s summit with a request for its neighbours to show solidarity by helping with energy supplies and providing funds to upgrade its oil infrastructure.

Some European countries, including Hungary but also coastal ones such as Germany and Italy, were caught out by having oil refineries that are set up specifically to handle Russian crude and cannot switch over straight away.

“Solidarity will also imply investment,” one EU official told The National. “We are aware of the fact that not all the pipelines and pipes transporting oil are suitable enough.

“We are now just trying to find ways how to do it and when to do it, so Russia will be hurt more than us. This change will require time and money.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has so far resisted pressure to sign up to an EU oil embargo. AFP

Another diplomat said it was no use for Europe to weaken its economy at a time when it is trying to fund Ukraine’s resistance and maintain pressure on Russia to call off its troops.

However, bringing the flow in oil pipelines to a standstill might have the benefit of causing problems for Russia’s production facilities and weakening one of its most lucrative sectors, they said.

In the meantime, Europeans are being urged to save energy as countries try to save fuel for next winter. Germany is poised to put condemned coal plants on standby in case Russia cuts off gas pipelines.

The Czech Republic is scrambling to increase its energy production after a new government took office last year, replacing billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis, who had played down concerns about energy reliance on Russia.

The new administration wants to reopen discussions on an energy connector with Poland known as Stork II, which received EU funding but was put on ice by Mr Babis, leading to mutterings about his business interests.

But Prague too is seeking a three-year grace period to implement the sixth sanctions package, which has stalled in committees for almost a month after the five previous rounds were waved through in record time.

Bulgaria, which does have a Black Sea coast but had its gas supplies cut off by Russia last month, also said it wants special treatment in any oil embargo.

Hungary did not block a coal embargo as part of the fifth package. But oil sanctions have proved the most difficult issue yet, and there has been no formal move to venture further into gas.

Some diplomats have expressed sympathy with the position of landlocked countries. But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his frustration clear in an overnight address on Thursday, saying that “every day of delay, weakness, various disputes … is new killed Ukrainians”.

“Where did those who block the sixth package get so much power?,” he said. “Why are they still allowed to have so much power?”.

Although that view has supporters in the EU who would like to remove Hungary’s veto, such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the necessary treaty changes would be a long and fractious process that typically takes many years.

Some Ukrainian politicians have gone further by suggesting that Mr Orban’s hand could be forced by switching off the Druzhba pipeline that connects Russia to Hungary via Ukraine.

But in the meantime, Hungary is sticking to its guns and demanding that energy supply be guaranteed for a country that cannot rely on the ocean, Ms Varga said. “These are physical, mathematical facts.”

Updated: May 29, 2022, 5:59 PM