Finding Greater Energy Security in Europe

Since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, Europe has faced a looming energy crisis. EU sanctions against Russia have minimized energy imports from the east, and the recent apparent attack on the Nordstream pipelines halted gas flow in all except a single line. Russia has also opted to restrict gas flow outside the scope of EU sanctions, and as a result Russian gas powering European homes has more than halved this year. As winter approaches, countries across Europe are racing to instill a range of stopgap measures in order to prevent the continent from freezing. Some of these measures include the German government postponing the closure of two of its remaining three nuclear power generators and suspending its constitutional debt brake as part of a massive energy relief plan, and the European Union agreeing to pool gas purchases in an effort to combat high prices over the cold months. Europeans are almost certain to be in for a difficult winter this year, and government leaders will need a large amount of political will to wait it out without returning to Russian gas supplies.

Economic interdependence as a deterrent, something that Europe has staked its security strategy on for years, has proven to be a failed experiment in the case of Russian aggression. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Europe has tried to integrate Russia into the European political, economic, and security spheres through the 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and over the next twenty years it would come to rely heavily on Russian energy imports through pipelines like the Nordstream 2 project, which started construction in 2010. Angela Merkel and her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, were advocates of the Gazprom-owned pipelines despite US objections because the direct connection with Russia would provide cheap fuel to Germany’s massive, energy-intensive economy. Russia sold the project as an improvement on Europe’s energy security, partly because Russia was one of the only options for Europe to satisfy its energy needs, and partly because closer economic integration with Russia and the West would deter either from interfering in the other’s affairs. Logically, that integration also includes a greater potential for economic coercion, namely sanctions, to work as part of that deterrent as well. Sanctions have, however, failed to deter Russia from further aggression in Ukraine after 2014. The pressing question regarding European security after this coming winter, and after the end of the war in Ukraine, is this: how will Europe guarantee its energy security in the future?

The first option for a post-war Europe is to return to Russian gas supplies, pinning its energy security once again on the deterrent effects of economic interdependence. After the apparent attack on the Nordstream pipelines, however, it is unclear whether that option is viable for Europe. Further, reintegrating Putin’s Russia into the European security structure as an essential energy supplier would only serve to reward its bad behavior. Ultimately, this option will be detrimental to European security in the long run.  

The other options Europe must consider, then, are ensuring energy security either through energy independence−ensuring enough indigenous production to cover domestic needs−or energy interdependence with more reliable security partners such as non-EU NATO partners or other stable democratic energy exporters. There is some evidence that European decision-makers are making steps towards both.

Some steps towards energy independence already being taken include plans for a new hydrogen and gas pipeline between Barcelona and Marseilles through the Mediterranean, and recent European Council policy planning urges accelerated investment in renewables and reducing demand for gas consumption across the Union. Energy independence, however, is a difficult task for Europe. Most European states are net-consumers of energy and those that are strong energy producers like Norway and Azerbaijan have historically produced too little to act as alternatives to Russian oil. In 2020, Europe natively produced 42% of its energy and imported 58%. Energy independence is a goal of the European Council, but it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Nuclear energy is not embraced in Germany, where it could do the most good for closing the energy gap, and renewables have not received enough private or public investment to overcome fossil fuel production. Liquified natural gas (LNG) is a potential stopgap, but Europe can only get it from distant producers like the US and Qatar.

In the meantime, The European Union will need to turn to energy imports from sources other than Russia. The EU has already started to increase natural gas imports from Norway, the United States, and Canada, as well as planned increases of gas deliveries from Azerbaijan, Israel, and Egypt. The first hydrogen deliveries from the United Arab Emirates have also recently made their way to Europe. Importantly, many of these countries already have strong ties to the European Union. Norway, the US, and Canada are all members of NATO and thus have a strategic interest in keeping Europe securely supplied with energy. Azerbaijan is a part of the Eastern Partnership Initiative, a project to strengthen ties between the EU and former Soviet states, and its primary economic relationship is with the EU. Egypt and Israel both also have important economic and security relationships with Europe.

Not every country that Europe is turning to for energy imports is an ideal partner, but no potential new partner represents a strategic threat on the same scale as Russia. Energy independence may be the ideal situation for Europe in the post-war period, but European energy consumption may prevent that from becoming a viable option until the distant future. In 2020, only 20% of the EU’s energy consumption was from renewable sources. Until energy independence is achieved, Europe must avoid returning to its past habit of sourcing energy supplies from strategically threatening actors. As the invasion of Ukraine has shown, economic interdependence does not have a deterrent effect.   Furthermore, If Ukraine manages to completely repel Russian forces from its territory and extract a politically satisfying resolution to the war, reintegrating Russia into the security fabric of the continent would only serve to needlessly endanger European security. The far more secure choice for Europe, and one that it seems to be working towards, is the construction of an interdependent energy network of allies and close friends. Importing energy from NATO allies like Norway, the US, and Canada is the best scenario as it will be the safest method of ensuring energy security short of independent production. So long as European leaders can survive this coming winter without returning to Russian gas supplies, EU energy security will be greatly improved in the long run by shifting energy reliance away from the east and towards the west.

Brandon Grosch is a full-time graduate student in the Schar School’s International Security program. He holds two B.A. degrees in History and International Studies from Towson University. His research interests include strategic air power, NATO alliance politics, and European security and economic issues. After graduation he hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy.

Photo can be found here.