Why Europe Should Listen To Medvedev

Why Europe Should Listen To Medvedev

The Czech government, in its capacity as president of the EU's Council of Ministers, will host a meeting in Prague next week with central Asian republics. The purpose is to discuss possible energy routes to bring gas from the region to western European markets, bypassing Russia. Last Friday (24 April) Bulgaria, one of the countries worst hit in January by disruption to gas supply from a dispute between Russia and Ukraine, organised a separate energy meeting. The Sofia summit, which was attended by representatives of Caspian and central Asian republics as well as by EU officials, also addressed possible alternative energy routes to Europe and the responsibilities of supplier, transit and energy-importing countries. Two days ago (28 April) Sergei Stanishev, Bulgaria's prime minister, went to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, about a new gas route, South Stream, which is supposed to bring Russian gas to the western European markets through Bulgaria. 

This sudden intensification of energy diplomacy is in part a consequence of the severity of January's crisis, which left parts of Europe with no heat in the middle of a harsh winter. The dispute showed how vulnerable the current energy supply routes to western Europe are and exposed some murky aspects of the gas trade.

The EU's two-week struggle to determine whether Russia or Ukraine was responsible for turning off the gas taps made clear the need for new agreements with supplier and transit countries. Russia, too, seems to have understood that this latest energy crisis damaged its credibility as a reliable supplier and that the rules of energy trade must be re-written if it is to repair the political and perhaps commercial damage. But while the EU's leaders are busy organising parallel summits, exploring bilateral agreements or supporting rival infrastructure projects, Russia's rulers have made a bold step towards rewriting the world's energy rules.

On a visit to Finland last week (21 April), Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, released ambitious proposals for new rules on global energy co-operation. The rules aim at replacing the 1994 Energy Charter Treaty, which Russia has signed but never ratified, claiming it is out of step with reality and does not include many of the world's major energy-producing countries. Medvedev called last week for an international, legally binding instrument that would include all major energy-producing countries, countries of transit and energy consumers.

The plans, which Medvedev said would be distributed to the members of the G8 and G20 major economies and to the former Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States, cover all aspects of global energy co-operation, including proposals on a transit agreement. They deal with nuclear energy as well as conventional sources. European officials, who were surprised at the release of these plans, say that they are studying the proposals "with utmost interest"�.

The Russian president's attempt to rewrite the world's energy rules are reminiscent of his similarly bold proposals for a new European security architecture that would include Russia and would render NATO obsolete. Together they are a sign of Russia's wish to revive its influence in the world. Although Russia is not the most neutral player in the energy trade and is infamous in the business for its strong-arm tactics, it does not follow that the EU should dismiss Medvedev's ideas out of hand. It is time for the EU to admit that the Energy Treaty Charter never flew, not just because Russia did not complete its ratification, but because it did not include some other important energy players, such as the United States, China, India and Norway. The EU should give Russia's ideas serious consideration. International talks on energy co-operation that include all the major countries in the energy business are desirable. A preliminary discussion of Medvedev's plans at the G8 meeting in Italy in July would be welcome. The world needs a comprehensive set of coherent, transparent, legally binding rules to protect the trade in one of the most sought-after commodities, energy. Medvedev's plan gives the world the chance to think seriously about de-politicising energy.

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