EU reluctant to get embroiled in Russia-Ukraine gas row
BRUSSELS - Despite pressure from Russia and Ukraine, the European Union is unwilling to get embroiled in their complex gas supply conflict, at a time when EU relations with Moscow are already sufficiently fraught.
"We refuse to be part of the dispute, this a commercial dispute," stressed Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, whose country assumed the EU presidency on January 1.
"We do not know all the details of all the contracts which are confidential," he added Saturday.
Russia’s state-owned Gazprom said on Sunday that shortfalls in gas supplies to EU clients were Ukraine’s fault and it was supplying all required volumes to the Ukrainian pipeline network, Interfax reported.
Ukraine says Gazprom has cut back its supplies.
Vondra has met officials from Gazprom and Ukraine in recent days as both sides engage in frantic lobbying efforts in the hope of gaining European support for their positions, in vain according to European officials.
Vondra is insistent that the EU’s only objective is to make sure that agreements are respected and gas supplied in full.
"Russia and Ukraine must (resolve the dispute) quickly, there is no other way to solve the conflict," said Vondra.
Even determining who was responsible for drops in gas supplies to several EU nations including Bulgaria, Poland and Romania would prove impossible, a source close to the EU presidency said, with no independent metering system at the Russia-Ukraine border.
Securing a more reliable, and transparent, supply from Moscow is very important to Europe as it receives 40 percent of its gas imports from Russia and the vast majority of that via Ukraine.
Recently, the 27 EU nations agreed on an ambitious energy and climate change package aimed, in part, at reducing the bloc’s reliance on Russia, including energy efficiencies and increased use of renewable sources.
The European Union is also focusing on developing a "southern gas corridor" to transport supplies from the Caspian Sea and Middle East regions, bypassing Russia, as well as an energy ring linking Europe and southern Mediterranean countries.
Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, agrees there are reasons for Europe’s reticence to jump head first into the gas row and "limit its involvement to encourage the two parties to negotiate in good faith."
One problem is the persistent differences between Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko.
European nations hold very divergent views on relations with both Russia and Ukraine, with some, such as Poland and the Batlic states, wishing to maintain a firm line against the Kremlin and close ties with Kiev while others, notably Germany and Italy more keen on good ties with Moscow and Gazprom.
It was only last month that the EU resumed key partnership talks, aimed at boosting economic and diplomatic ties three months after they were frozen in the wake of the Georgia conflict.
"I think the division of opinion about relations with Ukraine, relations with Russia is pretty deep within the EU," said Professor Philip Hanson of London-based Chatham House.
"I can’t quite see how when it gets down to really negotiating hard about some of these tricky issues whether the EU is going to be able too operate in a unified way," he told AFP.
However despite their reluctance to get involved, EU nations are hardly in a position to ignore the gas crisis.
The Czech EU presidency has called an extraordinary EU meeting in Brussels Monday dedicated to the question and the European foreign ministers will discuss the gas dispute during an informal meeting in Prague on Thursday.
The EU is also setting up an expert mission to press both parties to find a solution and continue supplies undiminished.
While the supplies may be dwindling the EU presidency has assured that gas stocks will last for "many weeks".
"We are safe and there is no huge concern, for the moment," said Vondra.