New energy partners: A testing ground for Europe’s geopolitical turn

The war in Ukraine has forced Europeans to keep the lights on through adopting a far more strategic approach to their energy security. ECFR’s Energy Deals Tracker has monitored the success of the EU’s energy diversification – and identifies challenges ahead

CAIRO, EGYPT – JUNE 15: (—-EDITORIAL USE ONLY – MANDATORY CREDIT – “EGYPT MINISTRY OF PETROLEUM / HANDOUT” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS—-) Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla (3rd R), Israeli Minister of Energy Karine Elharrar (R) and EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson (L) sign an agreement in Cairo, Egypt on June 15, 2022. The agreement was signed between Egypt, Israel and the European Union to increase liquified natural gas sales to Europe, who aims to reduce their dependence on supplies from Russia. Egypt Ministry of Petroleum / Anadolu Agency
Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla, Israeli Minister of Energy Karine Elharrar and EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson sign an agreement in Cairo, 2022
Image by picture alliance / AA | Egypt Ministry of Petroleum
©

In myriad ways, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Europeans to rethink geopolitics – with energy policy among the most transformed areas. Since February 2022, they have looked for alternative energy suppliers to fill the gap left by Russia. But Europeans must take care to pursue this process of diversification alongside a more strategic approach to energy.

Since January 2022, ECFR’s Energy Deals Tracker has charted the major energy deals that the European Union and its member states have negotiated with partners around the world. The tracker has shed light on three key strategic challenges to the bloc’s energy policy. These include the need to: build more diverse and resilient energy relationships; strengthen partnerships with near neighbours; and reconcile this with the EU’s climate priorities.

  • On diversification, member states have succeeded in rapidly expanding their options, although this has confronted them with uneasy questions on when and how to work with autocracies.
  • On building stronger relationships close to home, Europeans have stepped up their cooperation with North African states, although there remains much more to do in this regard.
  • And on reconciling energy security with climate action, ECFR’s tracker uncovered scarce coordination among EU member states and a relatively small number of agreements that have prioritised clean energy. There are efforts to correct this but they still need to show results.

The search elsewhere: Learning to work with autocracies

The Energy Deals Tracker documents the EU’s booming reliance on close allies, like Norway and the United States. However, taking into account the EU’s energy demand alone, it cannot afford to only buy energy from countries with strong records on democracy and human rights. Indeed, out of 122 deals identified in the tracker, 37 concern countries that are widely considered “not free”.  

The challenge for Europeans is, therefore, to understand when they can invest in energy partnerships with authoritarian countries – like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Azerbaijan – and how to do this without giving up on the defence of human rights. One way to avoid tying one’s own hands when working with autocracies is to diversify partners; from this perspective, it is encouraging to see that the EU is no longer putting all its eggs in one basket. Another way is to build more interdependent partnerships (see more below), providing Europe with enough leeway to remain vocal on its partners’ human rights record. Lastly, these partnerships should be based not just on economic but also shared foreign policy interests.

In the neighbourhood: Nearshoring energy supply

Secondly, the EU cannot escape its geography. It therefore needs to understand the key importance that one particular region – North Africa – has for its broader geopolitical interests.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are, to a varied degree, already playing a crucial role supplying the EU countries with oil and gas as well as helping them manage migration. The tracker confirms that 17 out of the 122 deals are with North African countries. But much of Europe needs to unlearn the habit of only identifying North Africa with fossil fuel supply and migration.

In the future, these states might also become major providers to Europe of clean energy and electricity. This requires building stable partnerships – and thus convincing North African countries that it is in their interest to strengthen their bonds with Europe rather than, for example, with China.

The EU needs to look beyond energy cooperation and offer more comprehensive partnerships with its neighbours.

To succeed, the EU will need to look beyond energy cooperation and offer more comprehensive partnerships with its neighbours. But while the EU-Morocco Green Partnership (detailed in our tracker) is a promising step in that direction, a similar deal with Algeria has not yet materialised. The EU and its member states should focus their energies on intensifying their relationships in this region.

Climate of action: Learning to build “friendships indeed”

Finally, the world is paying close attention to what the EU’s new energy deals mean for the bloc’s climate agenda. Among the 122 deals identified in ECFR’s tracker, 61 are dedicated to natural gas – but only 17 of these include a clean energy component. Without sufficient priority given to clean future in the EU’s new energy deals, Europeans risk committing themselves to importing dirty fuels incompatible with their green ambitions.

In reconciling energy security with climate goals the EU faces difficult questions, such as whether it is worth investing in doubling the capacity of a pipeline that brings natural gas from Azerbaijan; whether it needs to plan for quite so many LNG terminals; or whether it should really bet heavily on unproven hydrogen technology, for which some of the infrastructure is planned to be repurposed.

But the EU should seek partnerships that serve both objectives – for example, by carving out areas of cooperation on climate with the Gulf states, and with other energy partners. After all, Europe’s partners often harbour their own climate ambitions, and could become not only Europe’s “friends in need”, supplying it with fossil fuels – but also its “friends indeed”, sharing similar climate-related goals. This would provide ground for stable and reciprocal green partnerships.

For this to happen, one of the main challenges (which the EU is starting to address, for example, through joint purchases of gas) is that of coordination. The two objectives of climate goals and energy security could come together in the idea of ‘’sustainable energy security’’ at the European level. But, for the moment, the practice has often been scattered and short-sighted – also on display in the tracker through a multitude of different European players that seek deals with the same external partners, such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

Woken up by the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europeans are looking for new partners and better partnerships. But – looking at their new energy deals alone – there is still plenty of learning (and unlearning) ahead of them.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.