The need and opportunity for Europe’s energy independence

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Antonios Platias
Antonios Platias

Hellenic Brigadier General (Retired), Member of the Foreign Affairs Institute (FAINST) and the Institute of Energy for the South-East Europe (IENE), and former national defence policy director in the Hellenic Ministry of Defence

Developments following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine have brought the whole world face-to-face with a reality that had been dormant and therefore disregarded since the end of the Cold War: Russia, sooner or later, would claim its geopolitical status as one of two poles of bipolarity. Putin believes that this time has now come.

All these years, the West preferred to appease the Russian authoritarian, revisionist regime, rather than face this inevitable reality. In the course of maintaining its ‘comfort zone’, the West ignored both early indications and crystal-clear evidence of Moscow’s flagrant defiance of international law and order, most notably when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed a separatist movement in the Donbas region soon after.

Despite the coerciveness of Moscow in this respect, Europe did not curtail its vast energy dependency on Russia, nor did it build a self-sustained energy economy. It preferred instead to savour a counterfeit affluence that was nonetheless underpinned by Russian energy. This meant that for decades, Europe’s dependency had fed Russia’s voracious appetite with hard cash, persuading Putin that Europe will remain the perpetual cash cow to finance his neo-imperial aspirations. The current energy price hikes have been dramatically accelerated mainly because of the geopolitical risks caused by the Russian invasion in Ukraine.  This is ironclad evidence of Russia’s malignant influence over global energy markets. And it must come to an end.

For those who believe that a regime change in Russia will terminate expansionistic ambitions, it’s better to think twice. Putin is a symptom of a collective mindset that goes back to almost the 15th century when Ivan III, the first tsar of Russia, was struggling to convince others – and himself – that Moscow represented the ‘Third Rome’ of the Roman Empire, the logical successor to Rome and Byzantium as the centre of Christianity. This collective perception prevailed over the Tsardom of Rus, the Russian Empire and remarkably even over the Soviet era. It remains rooted to this day in the megalomaniacal disillusions of the Russian ruling class and, most probably, the misled citizens of Russia.

Turning to alternative countries for energy procurement is one solution

This brings us to the present. The imposed economic sanctions against Russia will be effective to a certain extent. However, even if we were to conceive of an unlikely best-case scenario, such as Russia’s total and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine, Europe would continue to remain Moscow’s energy hostage. This sounds the alarm to transform Europe once and for all. It’s about time for Europe to come to a bold decision and pare down its dependency on Russian energy to zero. This is an extremely complicated decision, but as always, no geopolitical plan is viable if it is not economically feasible and sustainable, and vice versa.

Europe’s independence from Russian oil and gas will be the necessary historical correction of a geopolitical paradox. Europe’s economic growth and development has been heavily based thus far on funding Russia through energy, which turned out to be the greatest threat for the EU acquis. In the decade from 2011 to 2021, EU member states paid €157bn for Russian energy imports. Even now, after Russia’s unilateral declaration of war against not only Ukraine but against democratic virtues and values, Moscow is still funded through payments for energy from consuming European countries.

The question is: is there is a ‘plan B’ for Europe? Can one still be made to create a paradigm shift in energy procurement? The fact is that energy prices have already nearly doubled since last year. Most likely, they have not yet peaked. So, turning to alternative countries for energy procurement is one solution that would not incur the greatest cost.

It is imperative for Europe’s future to understand that we must change course. Tomorrow must be different. This time, Europe has to stand on its own feet in many aspects. From the outset, Europe must establish a self-sufficient energy system, without jeopardising the three core dimensions of energy sustainability: energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability of energy systems.

Prolonged underinvestment in hydrocarbons raises the spectre of continued price shocks and volatility

To this end, there are many things to be done, starting with exploitation of Europe’s own resources in all directions. Renewable energy source penetration in the energy and storage markets are of crucial importance not only because of their minimum energy footprint, which would align with the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ and net-zero emissions goals, but also because they both require high-end technologies that Europe has already made great strides on. The current energy prices, however, have forced many countries to step back to lignite for electric power production, but the fact remains that progress is being made towards renewables. Another resource to exploit is the large untapped energy efficiency potential. For example, it is estimated that approximately 2,000bcm of natural gas lies beneath the seabed basins of the Ionian Sea and south Cretan Sea in Western Greece. This amount of gas is equivalent to €250bn and requires no more than 2.5 years to be recovered. It is obvious that prolonged underinvestment in hydrocarbons raises the spectre of continued price shocks and volatility.

The storage capacities of the European countries should also be examined. For those in the EU, new financial tools and toolkits can be introduced to energy exchange markets in support of households and enterprises. Solutions must be scalable and customisable, taking into account the degree of dependency on Russian gas that these entities face. Additionally, the technological progress towards low carbon liquid fuels and reusable carbon fuels is coming closer to commercial use. The discussion around the energy production capabilities of nuclear power is back on the table. New gas pipelines, which do not pass through volatile areas or through countries of authoritarian regimes, should be examined too.

The world is again learning an essential geopolitical lesson. If you want to be strong, you have to be self-sufficient. This time, the West and particularly Europe, which is suffering most of the geopolitical and cost-related consequences out of any region, have to undertake all necessary and bold actions to direct efforts to break out of the Russian energy dependency headlock, so as to create exclusive opportunities towards a sustainable economic growth model and a vigorous geopolitical presence. If not, then Europe will suffer its own fate.

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