In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, leaders meeting in Brussels for an EU-US summit today (26 March) decided to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas, and deliver a sound basis for a transatlantic trade deal.
“Forging strong economic ties across the Atlantic is a powerful political sign. A way to show the international community who we are at heart: economies based on rules, societies based on values and proud of being so,” said European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, speaking at a press conference at the end of the EU-US summit.
The political message came out loud and clear. “The world is safer and more just when Europe and America stand as one,” President Barack Obama said at the same press conference.
Ukraine: The game changer
The annexation of Crimea by Russia has changed the tone in EU-US relations, sources say. Both Washington and Brussels are more determined than ever to make Europe independent of Russian gas and to push through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will ultimately help set common regulatory standards.
Obama’s first term was dominated by tensions over how to grapple with the global economic downturn, and disagreement over measures to tackle the banking and debt crisis, which threatened to slow down economic recovery ahead of the presidential election, in 2012.
Last year’s revelations about National Security Agency spying strained relations between the US and Germany, particularly after it was disclosed that the NSA was snooping on Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Ukrainian crisis seems to have reversed the tension, and tightened ties between the two trading blocs, after months of fraught relations, due to the surveillance scandal.
Obama stressed that “energy is a central focus of our efforts”, adding that it “will have some impact on the global economy”.
Russia supplies over a quarter of Europe’s gas, mostly in eastern Europe. Last year, Russia’s Gazprom supplied the European Union and Turkey with a record 162 billion cubic metres of gas, of which 86 bcm went via Ukraine.
Gazprom issued a thinly veiled warning earlier this month that it could stop shipping gas to Ukraine over unpaid bills.
Rebuffing the blackmail, Washington and Brussels are assessing ways to further diversify Europe’s energy sources.
Mentioning shale gas, the American leader said that the US was blessed with additional energy sources that were developed in part because of new technologies.
“We have authorised export of as much natural gas each day as Europe uses each day,” he added, saying that there was a need to accelerate processes of diversification.
Top EU officials have asked President Obama to make it easier for European companies to obtain licenses to export US liquefied shale gas to Europe.
The call was initiated by four central European countries, which have asked the US Congress to make it easier for them to import natural gas from the United States and reduce their dependence on supplies from Russia.
Obama used a reassuring tone, saying that energy diversification would be good for Europe, and good for the United States.
“It is not something that can happen overnight. The point of this crisis is that we have to start moving now with a sense of urgency.”
Energy ministers on both sides of the Atlantic have been asked to start working together and accelerate the process. TTIP could be a tool to make collaboration on energy happen, sources say.
Since US President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the EU and the USA don’t hold regular summits as they normally should. It has been explained that Obama wanted to concentrate more on internal issues, that he was against meeting only for the sake of the photo opportunity and insisted that meetings should be held if something important needed to be decided.
A summit in Madrid in May 2010 was famously cancelled and the November 2011 Washington EU-US summit was the only one under Obama’s presidency so far. In the meantime, the EU has held nine EU-Russia summits. EU
EU-US Summit: Joint Statement (26 March 2014)
EU-US Summit: Remarks by President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy (26 March 2014)
EU-US Summit: Remarks by President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso (26 March 2014)