realclearworld Newsletters: Europe Memo
You'll have to forgive those of us living in Europe if we feel sometimes like we're drowning under a steady stream of summits, each of them packed now with such importance, yet none of them seemingly getting any satisfaction. But while the refugee crisis moves forward despite Brussels' best efforts to form a consensus, the latest EU summit did quietly put the capstone on a move of geopolitical significance.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz signed an agreement for the financing of the Gas Interconnector Poland-Lithuania, or GIPL, at the summit last Thursday, leading European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker to exuberantly declare the Baltic States' "energy isolation" a thing of the past.
Juncker's enthusiasm is overstated, and the 3.4 billion cubic meters of gas per year that will be able to move between Lithuania and Poland when the GIPL becomes operative is still a small amount. But the action is just the latest in a series of moves taken by Poland and the Baltic States to break Russia's monopoly on gas supplies -- a monopoly that in the Baltics has been absolute. Stratfor:
"Both Poland and Lithuania have already launched [liquefied natural gas, or] LNG import terminal projects in pursuit of this goal. And unlike similar plans made by other states in Central and Eastern Europe, which have largely stalled, construction companies broke ground on the Polish and Lithuanian projects in 2012. By October 2014, Lithuania had inaugurated its floating import terminal in Klaipeda, which began receiving commercial deliveries of LNG from Norway's Statoil in early 2015. While Poland's Swinoujscie LNG terminal was initially subject to several delays, it was formally inaugurated Oct. 12 and is set to receive its first shipment of LNG from Qatar in December. And as such energy projects move forward, Poland and the Baltic states will continue to gain leverage in their dealings with Russia."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has grabbed the world's attention with his military intervention in Syria. In a hyperactive media environment, Russia's decisiveness looks good, regardless of the dubious strategic benefits or the risk of an unintended disaster. But here, at least, we see Europe playing the long game. Below the fawning or fearful headlines, Russia is on ever-less sure footing in the area it sees as its immediate sphere of influence. It may have grabbed Crimea and dropped the Donbas under an icy veil of conflict, but it has done so at the cost of seeing a Western-oriented government installed in Kyiv. Its own economy is in dire straits -- sanctions and the falling oil price only serving to exacerbate systemic inadequacy -- and Moscow's resulting failure in patronage is pushing neighboring Belarus, a solid ally, into the beginnings of a strategic drift. Militaries in Poland and Ukraine are growing in credibility, and Warsaw's increasing confidence -- which could be undermined in the short term, depending on the results of upcoming elections -- should over the long term give Europe a leadership pole with a harder approach to its East.
Back to the immediate. Those supplies of LNG were prohibitively expensive when Europe's eastern edge began its pivot away from Gazprom; especially as Asian demand picked up. But with output soaring and prices falling, Russia's advantage erodes further. Europe needs to be able to take advantage. The 534-kilometer pipeline connecting Lithuania with Poland is only one small part of a greater plan to create an EU energy union, and that plan faces plenty of pitfalls.
It wasn't a big splash, and it didn't create major headlines. But at least a measurable positive came out of Europe's latest summit.
Around the Continent
Negative neutrality: The Swiss elected a new lower house on Friday, and the results, in a country that is a member to the Schengen border-free area, will not please the European Union. The anti-EU, anti-immigration Swiss People's Party emerged a clear winner. EU Observer's Peter Teffer:
"[T]he vote is indicative of the mood in the country, and is likely to influence relations with the European Union.
"Last year, the Alpine nation voted in an SVP-backed referendum ‘against mass immigration'. Following the vote, it announced new rules that included immigration quotas for EU citizens as of 2017, something which Brussels says is incompatible with Switzerland's participation in the border-free Schengen area.
"The EU is expecting a new referendum if Switzerland wants to normalise relations, diplomat Maciej Popowski said earlier this year."
Feuding Le Pens marching to victory? France's far-right Front National party is a family affair. Founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who brought the party to prominence but had views a bit too toxic for the French to propel him to the presidency, the party is now led by his daughter, Marine Le Pen. Marine and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, both seem primed now to score victories in France's upcoming regional elections. As befitting a family party, their platform is largely centered on identity issues. Politico EU's Nicholas Vinocur breaks it down:
"Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, often described as the 'darling' of far-right patriarch Jean-Marie, is conducting an intensive local campaign focused on immigration, security and the idea of protecting France's identity.
"She has maintained her ties to Jean-Marie throughout a bitter family feud with Marine and met with him at the family residence near Paris last Tuesday despite his exclusion from the party in August.
"Jean-Marie, who was kicked out the National Front for saying he still believed the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history, maintains considerable support in southern France. Marion wants to enlist his support as well as that of his allies to increase her chances of winning."
Considering China: Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the United Kingdom this week. As written in a previous edition of the Europe Memo, Britain, while considering a major break in relations with Europe and drifting into Transatlantic despond, is publicly yet quietly pondering a pivot to China. The Guardian's editorial board mulls it over:
"It is a shift that has not been preceded by the full public discussion it deserves, and one that could constrain us and commit us for decades to come. Put simply, it is proposed to hitch Britain's economy to the Chinese wagon, with all that may mean in the future in terms of Chinese ownership of key British industries, a growing Chinese presence in our financial sector, and growing Chinese influence over our economic decisions and over our approach to critical human rights issues in China."
That paper's columnist Martin Jacques considers the pivot a matter of geo-economic inevitability:
"The underlying thinking behind the British decision has since become clear. This was no flash in the pan. The key mover is the chancellor, George Osborne. His approach is based on a recognition of the profound changes in the global economy caused by China's rise. At the time of the last state visit to Britain by a Chinese president, that of Hu Jintao in 2005, the UK economy was still slightly larger than that of China: today China's GDP, by the most conservative measure, is over three times greater. We are fast becoming a minnow by comparison.
"Since 2005, the financial crisis has rendered western growth rates close to zero, left their economies debt-ridden, and made the global economy ever more dependent on China for growth and capital. This is the new reality that imbues the thinking of any government, right or left. To their great credit, Osborne and his party have seized the nettle."
Brexit Watch: Meanwhile, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney tomorrow will make what the Telegraph calls a "seismic" intervention in the slow-evolving Brexit debate:
"The speech, to be given at St Peter's College, Oxford, will be closely watched for any hint as to whether the Governor believes the UK should stay in the EU."
Europe Memo will update you on Thursday with Carney's remarks.