Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on June 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Without a stronger response, Russia will win the Great Game of European politics

We need a European energy union capable of negotiating collectively over price and acting as a strategic sponsor.

At a superficial level the latest gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is a squabble about price and unpaid debt. But the real issues at stake are much bigger than that. They form part of a wider struggle to control the supply of energy across the whole of Europe that will ultimately shape the balance of power with Russia over the next two or three decades. To prevail, the EU will need to show the kind of strategic awareness and political will it has so far been unable to muster.

Those who ordered Gazprom to turn off the taps last week in all probability also ordered the bombing of a gas pipeline in the Ukrainian province of Poltava the following day. They did so safe in the knowledge that there will always be influential people in Europe willing to draw the wrong conclusions. The message they wanted to send is that Ukraine is a borderline failed state and the main threat to the security of European energy supplies. Would it not be better for everyone if Russia was allowed to take direct control of Ukraine’s pipelines or at least build new pipelines to remove that country from the chain of supply? That way Europe could get Russia’s gas and Russia could get Europe’s money without the bothersome issue of Ukrainian sovereignty getting in the way. So runs the argument.

It isn’t a coincidence that Russia made its move just as the European Commission was starting to take a tough line on energy policy. The most recent example of this was its decision a month ago to threaten infringement proceedings against the Bulgarian government over its South Stream project with Gazprom. This would enable Russia to bypass Ukraine and supply 15 per cent of Europe’s gas needs through a pipeline under the Black Sea. Bulgaria and Gazprom have attempted to circumvent European competition rules by redesignating the pipeline as an "inter-connector" so that they could block third party access and maintain it as a Russian monopoly supply route. But the Commission, to its credit, said no, so the project is stalled pending further discussion.

South Stream is typical of Russia’s emerging energy strategy which aims to increase its own export options while narrowing, as far as possible, Europe’s import options. As the head of OMV, South Stream’s Austrian partner, conceded earlier this year, the €56bn project "is not about importing more gas, but about the fact that gas could be transported to Europe bypassing Ukraine." It expands Russia’s infrastructure of control by eliminating Ukraine’s bargaining power as a transit country without necessarily delivering a single molecule of additional gas to the European market.

Russia already has a sizeable excess of pipeline capacity – 250bcm per annum compared to actual exports of 161.5bcm last year. One goal is to use this over-capacity to make competitor projects commercially unviable. South Stream has already succeeded in killing off the Nabucco-West pipeline that would have brought new gas from Azerbaijan to some of the most Gazprom-dependent countries in South East Europe. The South Stream spur to Croatia, with a projected capacity equivalent to around twice the country’s actual gas consumption, has a similar purpose. At least part of the motive is to scupper plans to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on Croatia’s Adriatic coast capable of supplying several countries in the region.

Another issue of concern raised by South Stream is the importance of the Balkans in the changing geopolitics of Russian energy supply and particularly the success with which Russia has been able to secure the collaboration of local elites in frustrating the EU’s attempts to create a more liberal and diverse energy market. This is not particularly surprising in the case of Bulgaria where there are strong undercurrents of Slavophile sympathy – the German intelligence agency, the BND, recently estimated that a third of the Bulgarian economy is controlled by Moscow. The same can be said of Serbia, a self-proclaimed ‘strategic partner’ of Russia’s whose privatised national energy monopoly, NIS, was sold to Gazprom in 2008.

The real surprise is the way that Russia has succeeded in brining EU member states like Croatia and Slovenia under its influence. Despite a legacy of tension left by the Balkan Wars, both are active participants in South Stream and keen to work with Russia on other energy projects. The Croatian government has been in talks with Russia’s state-owned energy giants, Gazprom and Rosneft, about taking over its own national energy champion, INA. Zagreb is locked in a bitter dispute with current joint-owners, the Hungarian company MOL. In circumstances reminiscent of the Yukos affair, a campaign of arbitrary tax audits, bureaucratic obstructionism and judicial intimidation is being used to force MOL out. Hovering in the background is a revolving cast of energy consultants and ex-government advisers, several with close Russian connections, keen to facilitate a deal with Moscow.

All of this puts complaints about a European "superstate" into perspective. When it comes to dealing with a real superstate – an assertive, authoritarian, centralised Russia – the EU often lacks the tools to respond effectively. It can see what Russia is trying to do and it can even devise strategies to deal with it. But if it really wants to support Ukraine’s independence or make progress in loosening Russia’s grip on European energy supply, it remains dependent on the will of member states to follow through on the ground. So while everyone knows that South Stream and Russia’s moves in Croatia are designed to thwart the EU’s declared ambition to diversify its energy mix, the European Commission is forced to rely on competition policy as a substitute for the real strategic authority needed to redesign Europe’s energy system in the common interest.

The answer is the one provided earlier this year by the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk: a European energy union capable of negotiating collectively with Russia over price and acting as a strategic sponsor of the new infrastructure needed to achieve real energy independence. Including Ukraine in this purchasing consortium would do even more to blunt Russia’s energy weapon. The alternative of continuing to muddle through will mean that the advantage in the Great Game of European energy politics remains with Moscow.

David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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