The European Commission could play a more prominent role in talks between EU member states and Russia concerning the South Stream gas pipeline, it emerged on December 12, but the extent of its involvement remains unclear.
Bulgaria’s Economy and Energy Minister Dragomir Stoynev said on December 12 that the Commission would take a lead role in negotiations with Russia, meant to ensure that the bilateral agreements signed by five EU member states and Serbia did not breach EU law. The announcement came after ministers from the six countries met with European energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger in Brussels.
Later in the day, however, Oettinger said that the EC would act as “an advocate” for the six countries once it receives the required mandate from their governments. The six countries are Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia.
Oettinger’s spokesperson, Marlene Holzner, was quoted by Bulgarian media as saying that the countries and the EC agreed to work together to iron out the details of the common approach at an expert level.
Earlier, Stoynev said that Oettinger would, for all intents and purposes, represent the six countries during the talks with Russia. He said he was confident that the pipeline would be built and Bulgaria had no plan to give up on the project because it could create thousands of jobs and help economic growth.
Moscow is pushing the South Stream project as an alternative to the existing transit route through Ukraine, arguing that it provided more security for European customers. Some analysts, however, have said that political reasons – being able to use the issue of gas transit as a lever to influence Ukraine – were the main motivation for pursuing the project.
Work on the pipeline itself is yet to begin, but Russia has already started expanding its gas grid in the south of the country because the existing grid is not enough to accommodate South Stream’s planned annual capacity of 63 billion cubic metres a year. Ceremonial “first weldings” have been held in Bulgaria and Serbia, but the start of actual construction in either country is still some way off.
Last week, the EC said that the South Stream bilateral agreements signed by the six countries with Russia breached EU’s Third energy package regulations on several counts: Gazprom cannot own both gas production and transport capacities, third-party suppliers of gas must be granted non-discriminatory access to use the new pipeline, transit tariffs should be set by gas grid operators rather than Gazprom.
Holzner said at the time that the six countries had to renegotiate their agreements to take into account EC’s concerns. If Russia refused to do so, the six countries were advised not to implement the agreements, otherwise they would find themselves the target of EU infringement proceedings.
Russia’s response was that bilateral agreements were above EU law, while prime minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as to suggest that the EU should scrap the Third energy package regulations altogether.
(Photo: Marco Caliulo/sxc.hu)