Dr. Salem Al Ketbi
Dr. Salem Al Ketbi Courtesy:

There are significant differences in the ability of EU countries to weather disruptions in Russian energy imports, especially as winter nears. This is literally an ordeal that strengthens Russia’s position and in turn puts pressure on European countries one way or another. The EU wants to decouple itself from Russian energy imports.

Europe gets about 40 percent of its natural gas and about 27 percent of its oil from Russia. However, Europeans’ varying dependence on Russian gas and oil remains a major obstacle to a common European position on this issue. The same applies to the degree of dependence of some countries on gas or oil.

That is, if a country like Germany says it is ready to give up Russian oil, but still needs time to give up gas altogether, it is implicitly influenced by any Russian pressure in that direction. For its part, the UK has announced that it will stop importing Russian oil by the end of this year. The EU has announced that it will reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports by two-thirds.

However, implementation on the ground still hinges on complex considerations and procedures. Bulgaria, a new member of the EU and one of its poorest economies, is 90% dependent on Russian gas supplies. It recently announced that it is mulling negotiations with Russian energy giant Gazprom to resume natural gas supplies if it does not find an alternative source.

It made a point of emphasizing that buying Russian gas does not mean leaving the EU. The Bulgarian Energy Minister spoke of being not the kind of minister who would let the country’s population freeze in winter, and reiterated that the country would abide by European rules on the purchase of Russian gas. However, Moscow categorically refuses to sell except to those who pay in rubles.

Given the Bulgarian example, there is an expectation that the energy crisis, likely to intensify in Europe next winter, will lead to a split in European positions allowing Russia to sway some countries to pressure Ukraine into making concessions to end the war. Overall, the acid test for Europe will begin in November, when EU sanctions on Russian oil exports take effect.

Talk of an energy crisis in Europe is no longer just speculation, but reality. The question is not anymore whether there will be a crisis or not, but how far the impact will go. Russia has already stopped gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries that refused to pay for gas in rubles.

It is doubtless that the worsening energy crisis in Europe is the heaviest test of the principles of European unity. The members of the Union must show solidarity to mitigate the downsides of this crisis, rather than acting individually. This crisis comes shortly after the coronavirus pandemic outbreak crunch - the EU was hit hard until it recovered and united.

Until the EU’s ambitious 300-billion-euro plan to ease dependence on Russian fossil fuel supplies takes effect and investments in rebalancing the market to new energy sources work, European countries will have to do a lot to steer the bloc clear of this storm.

Europe’s concern about what is happening in Ukraine certainly also has a major impact on the foreign policy decisions of most member states, especially those bordering and close to Russia. It is unlikely that EU members will break away over the Russian gas crisis and the desire to return to cooperation with Moscow.

However, this does not discount the impact of intra-European disagreements over how to share the burden of the energy crisis and how to address it, particularly in terms of reducing consumption, dampening the effect of the crisis on economic growth, and the implication of all this on the popularity of European parties and politicians.

All in all, at this stage, it is unlikely that the crisis will eventually lead to the disintegration of the EU or the withdrawal of some of its members. Its impact could be limited to profound disagreements between the North and the South over the distribution of burdens and responsibilities resulting from the crisis.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst based in Dubai