The Brief – Time for Europe to play the Nord Stream card

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

‘Deplorable’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘an attack on fundamental freedoms’. Europe’s leaders this week held their own competition on who could give the most magisterial admonishment to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin following the deliberate poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Putin must be quaking with fear. Without any sanctions attached, the tongue lashing is like being savaged by a dead sheep.

For the moment, there’s little sign that Europe is going to match its words with action.

EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell has called on Moscow to cooperate with an international probe into the poisoning – good luck with that one – while the European Commission says that new sanctions on Moscow could come but only after a probe determines who was responsible for the poisoning.

The Kremlin has fallen back on the tried and tested tactic of denying official involvement and seeking to deflect blame. Yet it is inconceivable that President Putin doesn’t know what is going on even if he is not the one giving direct orders.

Following the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in England two years ago, where nerve agent Novichok was also used, most EU countries backed the UK by ordering the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats. That was the biggest blow to Russian intelligence networks in the West since the Cold War.

The place to start would be to impose asset freezes and travel restrictions on senior regime officials in Moscow and the expulsion of more Russian diplomats from Europe. However, that is a path already well-travelled and there’s not much to suggest that it has worked.

There is, however, an obvious candidate for a sanction that would hurt Russian prestige and its economy: cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, has said that there needs to be a “strong European answer” and that the EU should jointly decide to stop Nord Stream 2.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is clearly reluctant to abandon a deal that is vital to its energy needs, and almost near completion, remarking that “I don’t think it is appropriate to link this business-operated project with the Navalny question”.

Although Gazprom would be the big loser, cancelling Nord Stream 2 would also hurt firms in Germany, Austria, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France, who also have a stake in the pipeline.

But in seeking to double Russia’s supply of direct natural gas to Europe, Nord Stream 2 is at least as political as it is economic. Abandoning it needs to be put on the table.

After all, if the EU is serious about curbing nearly a decade of Russian aggression, it is time to put its money where its mouth is. Otherwise, the rhetoric that follows each aggressive act from Moscow is just a lot of empty hot air.

The Roundup

On Thursday, Athens denied a statement by NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Greece and Turkey had agreed to technical talks to defuse tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In another twist on Friday, Stoltenberg clarified that his statement about a deal for dialogue between Greece and Turkey referred to “technical talks” to defuse tensions and complement the diplomatic part that remains in the hands of EU presidency-holder Germany.

At the same time, a special meeting of NATO ambassadors condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as an “unacceptable breach of international law” and announced “consultations on further steps regarding Russia”. It, however, stopped short of sanctions like in the 2018 Skripal case.

The European Commission proposed a set of recommendations to prevent discriminatory measures applied by member states in a new attempt to harmonise fragmented COVID-19 travel restrictions across the bloc.

The Irish government confirmed its two nominees for the empty spot at the European Commission: seasoned MEP Mairead McGuinness and former European Investment Bank Vice-President Andrew McDowell are officially in line for the post.

The European Commission hopes for the first COVID-19 vaccine to have market authorisation in November, an EU official said. However, a timeline for its distribution is still unknown.

There will be “no quick fix” on a revised data transfer deal between the EU and the US following a July ruling by EU judges to strike down the Privacy Shield agreement, the EU’s Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has told MEPs.

Look out for…

  • Commissioner Johannes Hahn participates in the trilateral political dialogue meeting on the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework
  • European Competition Day

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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