by Marat Terterov,
Although 2011 is still far from over, it is already likely to go down in history as the year of the so called ‘Arab Spring’. 2011 will be remembered as the year when Arab populations threw down the gauntlet to their stagnating regimes, revising their traditional authoritarian power model and at long last commencing the transition to democracy. So too it is time to consider revising the European Union’s relationship with Russia, which has stagnated rather badly in recent years. Since the “big bang” enlargement of the EU in 2004, Moscow’s relations with Brussels have been increasingly characterised by tension (if not crisis) in their energy ties and failure to reach agreement in many areas of common strategic interest. In June of this year, the bi-annual EU-Russia Summit, held in Nizhny Novgorod, was dubbed as the ‘Vegetable Summit’ in the international press as Moscow and Brussels exchanged blows over the Russian ban on vegetable imports from the EU following the E.coli health scare in Germany.
The value added of the high expenditure Summits themselves is being questioned by the well informed European public. Critics argue that such gatherings have become little more than routine meetings, which, for example, have done little to push through a new EU-Russia Partnership & Cooperation Agreement. Failure to reach agreement on this form of ‘political framework’, which expired in 2007 and has been extended on an annual basis since that time, has done little to inspire investor confidence in Russia amongst European companies. The inability of Brussels & Moscow to conclude a new agreement also projects the image that the EU is having little impact in helping Russia move towards a law based society, or align its political culture into closer convergence with that of the EU. Despite the voluminous trade turnover between Russia and the EU, the political relationship between Brussels and Moscow seems to be steadily moving along the road to nowhere. A relationship worthy of a box office classic at the Cannes Film Festival – given the importance that these two political-economic powerhouse neighbours hold for one another – has relegated itself to little more than a silent movie.
At a time when no obvious means of putting some colour back into the EU-Russia relationship appears to be anywhere in sight, one dark horse capable of kick starting the engine is the much maligned Energy Charter process. The Energy Charter embodied much hope and optimism when it was conceived and put into legal force during the early post-Cold War years of the 1990s. A fresh beginning appeared to be on the horizon for a newly united Europe, where the Energy Charter would create a comprehensive new legal framework designed to underpin a burgeoning energy trade between East and West. Despite the noble vision of the Charter’s founding fathers, more recent years have brought one disappointment after another to the Charter experience. Years of deadlock in negotiations between Russia and the EU on the Energy Charter Treaty’s additionally proposed provisions governing energy transit have led to bitter feelings. These emotions soured further as a result of the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes of 2006-09 when the Treaty’s existing provisions on transit were breached. The disputes left the Charter badly exposed given that it was unable to offer any viable solutions for its member states who found themselves without gas during extremely cold winter periods. In the summer of 2009, the Charter Secretariat in Brussels could do little more than look on while a highly alienated Russia announced its intention of all but withdrawing from the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), throwing the two-decade old Charter process into its greatest crisis. As Moscow proposed its own ‘conceptual approach for global energy security’, and while other EU initiatives on the energy legislation front have become more prominent, the Charter found itself increasingly marginalised in its capacity to operate as an instrument of global energy governance.
Yet a sign of optimism may be looming in the shadows. Towards the end of 2011, the EU and the ECT’s 51 member states will vote to decide upon a new Secretary General of the Brussels based Energy Charter Secretariat – the administrative body governing the day-to-day workings of the Charter Process and providing legal clarifications for the ECT. The five-year term of the current Secretary General, a retired Belgian military official and former-diplomat of the ‘Old European’ genre, expires on January 1, 2012. His successor will be selected from one of three new candidates: an elderly state official from Italy; a younger, high ranking energy diplomat from Slovakia who graduated from Moscow Oil and Gas University; and a former-state prosecutor from Bulgaria, who is presently the head of the Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat, an EU initiative designed to export EU energy legislation into neighbouring countries. Since its inception, the Charter process has entertained a tacit rule where the post of Secretary General be traditionally filled by a political-bureaucratic figure from ‘Old Europe’, while the post of Deputy Secretary General would be filled by Moscow. During the last decade this formula has provided little more than a recipe for disaster, resulting in decision-making paralysis within the Charter Secretariat and further politicisation of the EU-Russia relationship.
The pending vote on the successor to the Energy Charter’s current Secretary General provides all stakeholders with a rare (if not unique) opportunity to instil life both into the struggling Charter process as well as the wider EU-Russia relationship. Just as this year’s Arab Spring has provided new hope for stagnating Arab governance models, it is high time that both the EU and Russia dispense with the anachronistic tradition of assigning the post of the Charter’s Secretary General on the basis of the Old European tradition. Such an appointment will only serve to reinforce all of the negative political capital which Russia and the EU have jointly bagged into the Charter process during the last decade. It will continue to damage the EU-Russia relationship looking ahead, whilst hardly presenting any useful medicine for the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
On the other hand, ECT member states’ selection of the right candidate from the countries of ‘New Europe’, will do much to bring relief from the frustrations which have entrapped the Charter in recent years. Visegrad and Balkan states of ‘New Europe’, such as Slovakia and Bulgaria, which lie between Russia and the mainstream EU states of the pre-2004 enlargement, are the key stakeholders in the EU-Russia energy trade. They are highly dependent on Moscow for their energy supplies, while at the same time their membership of the EU makes them loyal servants to Brussels’ vision of the evolving European energy framework. Slovakia and Bulgaria were the EU countries that were hit hardest by the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute of January 2009, in which the Charter was little more than an observer as Bratislava and Sofia negotiated with both Moscow and Kiev to end the crisis.
The lesson to be drawn from hindsight is that an Energy Charter Secretary General from those countries would have put the Charter’s instruments to far greater effect in an effort to resolve and ultimately prevent such a crisis situation. The crisis would have left a Slovak or a Bulgarian with little choice but to engage the Charter’s provisions to collectively work for the energy security of Slovakia, Bulgaria, the other EU states and the remainder of the ECT signatory nations, Russia included. Giving the reigns of executive command over small, yet significant wider-European instruments of energy security such as the Energy Charter to countries like Slovakia or Bulgaria may raise eyebrows within some circles. Yet it is a development which is long overdue and one which will only create a win-win situation for all of the countries engaged in the wider-European energy trade. It may just about be the best chance that the EU-Russia relationship has.
Dr Marat Terterov held the post of Senior Advisor at the Energy Charter Secretariat from February to December 2008 and remains a keen observer of the Charter process. This commentary appeared in the Brussels newspaper, New Europe, September 4-10, 2011. www.neurope.eu
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