Time to Talk to Turkey
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It was not long ago that decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic viewed Turkey as the strategic corridor through which the rich energy resources of the Caspian Basin could reach European consumers. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was eagerly promoting his country as an "energy hub" through which Eurasian and Middle Eastern oil and gas would flow safely and securely. This reliable corridor would allow for European Union member states to diversify away from resources and routes controlled by an increasingly quarrelsome Kremlin.
Times have changed. As European presidents and prime ministers of the Nabucco participating states met in Budapest last week to discuss development of Nabucco, a Turkey-centered route to the Caspian, Ankara 's role is emerging as a stumbling block to rival any Russian challenge. Erdogan earlier in January in Brussels cited lack of progress on the energy chapter of EU accession talks as the main reason for refusing to agree to a transit deal with Azerbaijan for gas to Europe.
Ankara knows it has leverage over Nabucco and wants to make a point about just how annoyed it is with the EU's mixed messages on Turkish membership.
But, the Nabucco project is already fraught with difficulties, from rising estimated construction costs and no tangible gas commitments from the Caspian side, and a dearth of political backing from Western Europe.
Erdogan's gambit seems more likely to cause frustration among EU leaders, not only hurting Turkey's membership bid, but throwing the very idea of a Turkey-centered southern energy route into question.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry seems to have realized this and is now busily playing down Erdogan's comments. But, it is not just Turkey's Western partners that are frustrated. Caspian energy producers are also rethinking their plans for Turkey as an export corridor. At the moment, Ankara is blocking the flow of Azerbaijan's natural gas to the Balkans.
The necessary infrastructure to start sending gas over Turkey to the lower Balkans already exists. The Turkmen leadership, whose policy is to sell resources at their border, is being offered a richer deal by Russia than what Turkey now pays for Caspian gas, which it gets from Azerbaijan.
All of this presents European consumers with an energy conundrum. Last month's gas row between Moscow and Kiev highlighted the volatile uncertainty about Ukraine as the continent's main artery for heating during the winter.
It underscored the need for routes to Caspian sources. But, if Turkey won't talk Turkey there may not be gas available to cook next year's Christmas goose.
A few third choices exist and Ankara should not take them too lightly. Russia's pet project in the region is a pipeline called the South Stream that would avoid Turkey and Ukraine by connecting directly to Bulgaria. The Caspian states would sell their gas into the Russian grid, from where Gazprom would deliver it to the European market. But, although the route might be safe, European consumers would still be at the mercy of Russia's Kremlin-controlled energy monopoly.
Other plans for pipelines that would directly connect Caspian supplies with European consumers across the Black Sea are also being reviewed, though the current prices on the energy market are marking options like LNG or CNG transit across the Black Sea from Georgia to Romania unattractive.
The most prudent solution is in fact not to give in to Turkish blackmail, but to better understand Erdogan's motivations. Nabucco is not the only project to suffer because the EU has decided it wants Turkey as an energy corridor, but not an energy partner. Ankara has refused to join the EU's Energy Community to integrate its regulations and infrastructure with those of Europe because doing so would benefit member states without getting Turkey any closer to achieving its foremost policy goal of joining the club.
If the EU wants Erdogan to sit at the Nabucco discussion table it must be prepared to talk Turkey on accession prospects. Asking Ankara to support European energy diversification and integrate with the union at a functional level, while keeping Turkey shut out at the official level of the accession chapter on energy, is not a coherent policy.
Nor is it one that will realize the alternative energy corridor that European consumers desperately need. EU leaders should find ways to bring Turkey in from the cold and back to the table, otherwise conferences like the one recently held in Budapest have no real added value.