The Visegrad 4 and Russian pipelines: An imaginary unity

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Despite what official proclamations may suggest, there is hardly any consensus among Visegrad members regarding the group’s position on Russian pipelines, writes Martin Jirušek. [Nord Stream AG]

The Nord Stream II pipeline gave birth to a seemingly united front among several Central and Eastern European states objecting to the project, including Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. That, however, is far from the truth, writes Martin Jirušek.

Martin Jirušek is assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Czech Republic.

The Nord Stream II pipeline, which is about to add 55 bcm/year of transit capacity through the Baltic Sea and thus redirect a substantial amount of gas transit outside Central Europe, has spurred heated debate. In fact, the plan to strengthen the northern gas route by building an additional pipeline gave birth to a seemingly united front among several Central and Eastern European states objecting to the project, including Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.

In their letter to the European Commission from March 2016, the signatories expressed their concern that the project would have “potentially destabilising geopolitical consequences”. The same concerns were reiterated by the Visegrad countries during their summit last October. For once, it seemed that the Visegrad countries found common ground. That, however, is far from the truth, once again showing that finding common ground in an environment as diverse as the energy sector is a rarity.

Soon after March 2016, it became apparent that the Czech Republic is definitely not the fiercest opponent of the project, owing to its current and future transit position. Since 2012, the Czech Republic has been an integral part of the transit infrastructure related to Nord Stream I. Nord Stream II would double the transported amount and chances are that, again, Czechia would play an important transit role, as foreshadowed by capacity auctions and the Czech TSO’s project to expand related infrastructure.

Czechia thus has very little incentive to oppose the Nord Stream II project and, as a result, keeps a low profile so as not to aggravate mutual relations with countries of a different opinion (e.g. Poland and Ukraine).

Slovakia was initially one of the most vocal opponents since Nord Stream II would mean a substantial decrease in its transit importance, not to mention the potential loss of transit fees. For a country that has perceived its transit role as an important part of its positioning in Europe, this would be a most unwanted outcome.

However, as it became apparent that increased gas volumes might eventually come from the west rather than the east, Slovakia’s position started to change. It is presumed that Slovakia would be part of the equation and would facilitate the flow of gas from Czechia to Baumgarten, Austria. Slovakia would therefore keep its transit position, albeit with lower transit fees. It is thus no wonder that the country’s stance towards the project has recently been similar to that of the Czechs.

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Poland, on the other hand, was one of the fiercest opponents of the project when it was introduced and has remained so ever since. Given the country’s generally bad relations with Russia and a generally anti-Russian sentiment reflected in the Polish domestic discourse, one cannot be surprised that the Polish stance has remained relatively constant, no matter the actual gas flow. In this sense, compared to Czechia and Slovakia, Poland’s attitude has been clear and unwavering. Nevertheless, as Gazprom is likely to utilise mainly non-Ukrainian transit routes in the future, the Polish anti-Nord Stream II attitude is likely to cause the country little damage anyway. Given the large amount of gas to be re-routed from Ukraine that will need to find a way to the West, the Polish route will remain utilised even after Nord Stream II comes into operation.

The remaining member of the group, Hungary, has also maintained relatively stable, albeit generally much friendlier, relations with Russia. Although the country’s position is formally aligned with the other group members, it seems the country behaves in a rather opportunistic way.

In recent years, Hungary has signed bilateral deals with Russia that should be beneficial for the country but, at the same time, have highlighted that Hungarian foreign policy has parted ways with other V4 members, most notably Poland.  Moreover, Gazprom has recently finished construction of offshore sections of the TurkStream pipeline and announced the follow-up pipeline, which would eventually reach Hungary. Thus it seems that the country may have yet another incentive not to take other V4 countries’ opinions into account.

However, nothing seems to be set in stone in this regard as of yet, as Hungarian foreign minister Szijjártó noted that Hungary may replace Russian supplies with gas coming from Romanian deposits in the Black Sea. While such statement may simply be hot air, given that the development of Romanian offshore reserves is still rather unclear, it nevertheless confirms Hungary’s rather unpredictable and opportunistic attitude.

As is apparent, despite what the official proclamations may suggest, there is hardly any consensus among Visegrad members regarding the group’s position on Russian pipelines. Similarly to the rest of Europe, such a controversial issue has split the group based on the members’ individual goals.

The Nord Stream II project thus serves as a litmus test indicating that Visegrad countries put their own affairs first, using the group framework as a fig leaf to cover unbridgeable differences among them.

Denmark delays Nord Stream 2 approval

Denmark has decided that it will not grant permission for a northern route of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, and has asked the Russian-owned company to look into a southern route instead. It is likely to delay the completion of the controversial project.

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