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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.