The EU imports 53% of the energy it consumes. It’s safe to say that not all of this energy is imported from regimes with glowing human rights records. So, do the realities of oil and gas politics ever force Europe to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in other countries? Or to compromise on fundamental European values?
European governments can still vividly recall the gas crises of 2006 and 2009, when Russia turned off gas supplies to Ukraine (an important transit country to the EU market for Russian gas). With a third of EU gas supplied by Russia, when Moscow cut supplies it led to temporary factory closures and a winter fuel crisis in some EU countries, including Slovakia and Hungary.
Yet, in June 2016, the EU decided to extend sanctions against Russia. The Russian “energy weapon” hasn’t been effectively deployed (partly because the struggling Russian economy desperately needs income from energy exports to keep it afloat). Has the link between foreign policy and energy been overplayed?
We had a comment sent in from Algy, pointing out that the EU imports the majority of all energy it consumes, often from politically repressive or unstable parts of the world. Does this energy dependence have a negative impact on EU foreign policy?
To get a response, we spoke to Gerald Stang, an Associate Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies who specialises in climate and energy politics. What would he say?
I don’t think the impact can be categorically defined as negative. In all of the EU’s interactions with third parties around the world, there’s always a balance to be had. There’s no country or partner outside of Europe with whom we see eye-to-eye on everything, and yet we interact with them, we trade with them, we deal with them in many different ways.
Now, when it comes to energy, it just so happens that a significant number of the suppliers of energy around the world are regimes that would be considered despotic or authoritarian of different types. And, definitely, our relationships with them are going to be influenced by the nature of our trade with them. So, this is why it’s always important to manage the dependencies as much as possible, to minimise the reliance on any one supplier, to ensure that any leverage that can be had from the commercial relationship over energy has as little impact as possible on our wider geopolitical interests. Because, ultimately, we want to be free to say and act how we want in pursuit of important European values and interests without being unduly influenced by any individual energy relationships.
So, it’s a challenge, there is no doubt about that. But it’s an unavoidable one, and it’s one I think Europe has come to improve its position on in recent years.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Ambassador Prof. Dr. István Gyarmati, President of the International Centre for Democratic Transition (ICDT). How would he respond to Algy? Did he agree that Europe’s energy dependence has negative geopolitical ramifications, maybe even forcing it to compromise on human rights issues in repressive regimes?
It’s quite a normal thing that countries that do not have some natural resources should import it from other countries. It happens to be the case that much of the energy resources are in countries that are not exactly democracies… But this is trade. I don’t think it has to have a serious impact on foreign policy, because it’s not a one-way street. It’s true that we need the energy, but they need to sell it.
So, I think we can, and usually we do, separate foreign policy and human rights from trade. And I think this is the best approach. Nevertheless, I think we are able to exert some pressure on repressive regimes in other countries almost independently from the resources or goods that we import from them. So, it has an impact, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem. It’s a manageable problem.
Is the EU’s dependence on energy imports hurting its foreign policy? Does Europe’s energy dependence force it to compromise on human rights issues in repressive regimes? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!