The Brief: The EU and Russia, much happier together than it seems

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

THE EU AND RUSSIA, MUCH HAPPIER TOGETHER THAN IT SEEMS

On the face of it, EU-Russia diplomatic relations appear to have reached a new low, following suspicions of meddling in elections around Europe and the continued deadlock in eastern Ukraine.

But when it comes to energy, Gazprom and Rosatom are doing more business with the EU than ever before.

Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas export monopoly, masquerades as a normal business but is rightly dubbed an “arm of the Kremlin”.

It may be surprising that relations between the EU Commission and Gazprom are so healthy. But the fact that the EU executive yesterday struck a behind-closed-doors deal with the Russian monopolist, speaks volumes.

The Commission’s Gazprom probe has been a sword of Damocles hanging over EU-Russia relations since 2011. Brussels suspected – rightly so – that Gazprom bullied the EU’s eastern countries to advance its interests and increase Russian influence.

But in an unexpected turn of events, the Commission has agreed to forgive Gazprom’s past misdeeds and accepted the company’s assurances to behave well in future.

Bulgaria, the EU country where Gazprom’s – and Russia’s – ambitions are strongest, even landed a bonus, as the Russian company agreed not to seek damages from its Bulgarian partners following the termination of the South Stream pipeline.

Now, it even looks “highly likely” that the Commission will approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The project aims to bring additional Russian gas directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine and central and eastern EU countries.

Gas-hungry Germany is pushing hard to get a green light for the pipeline to make up for lost megawatts from its Energiewende, which foresees the phasing out of the country’s entire fleet of nuclear reactors.

Germany may have nothing against importing nuclear energy from neighbouring countries, hence the Commission’s very accommodating attitude towards Hungary and its plans for the Paks II nuclear power station.

It’s no surprise that German Commissioner Günther Oettinger boarded the now infamous plane belonging to a lobbyist with alleged Kremlin ties, to arrive on time for a dinner with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

No matter which portfolio he has, Oettinger won’t work against Germany’s interests.

By the way, France also backs Paks II because national champions Areva and Alstom are building the new plant’s most sophisticated (and expensive) machinery, in cooperation with Rosatom.

It’s no surprise either that the Commission has not made the slightest effort to enforce its own legislation stipulating that EU countries with Russian nuclear stations should use fuel from other countries.

Ukraine is not an EU member but it is the only country to apply this policy. It learned the hard way.

THE ROUNDUP

Turkey has suspended top-level ties with the Netherlands as part of an ongoing dispute about holding rallies abroad ahead of a crucial referendum on constitutional reform. But do oranges really have to pay the price?

The European Commission is “seriously concerned” about the proposed changes and one prominent Turkish author warned they would seriously undermine democracy.

The UK parliament gave Prime Minister Theresa May approval to trigger Article 50 but there is speculation that it may be delayed until after the Rome summit on 25 March. Or it might be tomorrow, who knows.

Scotland’s Brexit minister told Matt Tempest that a second bid for independence is meant to “give people a choice”. Former Catalan leader Artur Mas was banned for holding public office for two years for staging an informal independence referendum in 2014.

LuxLeaks went largely unnoticed in Central and Eastern Europe. One tax campaigner sees tax evasion as an area where the EU can show it is more effective than national governments.

Angela Merkel postponed her Washington trip, where she was due to meet Donald Trump, due to massive winter storms. She may fly out on Friday instead. Trump will probably be keen to discuss Germany’s trade surplus.

A prominent economist told euractiv.fr that cutting it and trying to restore economic balance could restore public confidence in the European project.

Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic debriefed the Brussels press corps about his stateside visit.

The EU is unhappy with Bolivia about its decision to increase the amount of coca leaf (the main ingredient of cocaine) that can be produced and MEPs believe “multifunctional women” can help save the EU’s rural areas.

Headscarves and other religious symbols can be banned in the workplace, the EU’s top court ruled. The ECJ said businesses should have the freedom to present a neutral image.

The Commission has granted the alcohol industry an extra year to come up with a “self-regulatory” proposal on providing information on what is used to make certain beverages.

Brits are now drinking so much gin that the UK’s Office for National Statistics is including it in a typical “basket of goods” that is used to calculate inflation.

Sam Morgan contributed to this Brief.

LOOK OUT FOR…

Dutch voters go to the polls tomorrow and a result is expected early Thursday morning. The two frontrunners, incumbent PM Mark Rutte and far-right leader Geert Wilders, faced off in an intense TV debate last night.

Views are the author’s, not our sponsor’s.

This Brief is powered by Google. Digital skills change lives. Tam Love is trained in the ancient art of calligraphy but has also mastered developing apps, thanks to an Android scholarship supported by online course providers Udacity – read her story here. She’s just one of 10,000 recipients. Join Google and partners on March 28 to discuss how to get more Europeans shaping the app economy: click here.

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