EU foreign policy running on empty
25 March 2011
What with opposition from Germany and controversy between Italy and France, the intervention in Libya is yet more alarming evidence that, as the Daily Telegraph notes, "when dealing with a major security issue, ‘the Europeans’ just can’t agree.” Once again, member states have been prompted to act according to their own domestic political agenda rather than by the need for joint action. The Libyan crisis, though, has highlighted another area where Europe suffers from a dangerous lack of coordination: its energy policy.
The intervention in Libya was justified by the humanitarian necessity to defend civilians from massacres promised by Colonel Gaddafi. But the credibility of this argument has been undermined by the indifference shown by Europe vis-à-vis Arab countries where popular revolts have been violently repressed, such as Yemen or Bahrain, where the EU envoy explained away the firing of live bullets at the demonstrators by police by saying "in situations like this, accidents happen."
The reason for these double standards is simple: the Libyan crisis and the nuclear incident at Fukushima – which Germany responded to without consulting its European partners, deeply embarrassing them – has already led to soaring oil prices. The unused oil capacity of Saudi Arabia is now the last bulwark against a shock. The stability of the repressive regime in Riyadh and its satellites must be preserved, even at the cost of losing face.
As noted by the Financial Times, Russia is doing well out of this double crisis. The country has seen its oil income coffers bloat up and has proposed to increase its gas exports to Japan and Europe to compensate for the nuclear plants that have been shut down. And while the European Nabucco pipeline sits stalled, its Russian rival, South Stream, continues to cover ground. In the eternal tussle for eastern Europe, anything that strengthens Moscow weakens Brussels.
The EU has expended huge sums on building its External Action Service and on funding partnerships in the east and south, but its energy dependence is preventing it from practising a coherent and unconstrained foreign policy. To break the impasse, it must step back for the long view. Unfortunately for Brussels, the only people who have that broader view are the lobbyists for the oil industry, which is comfortable with the status quo.