Delegations from countries as disparate as the United Kingdom and Turkmenistan met in Prague on Friday to promote the co-called Southern Corridor, an energy transit route connecting eager Caspian producers with hungry European consumers.
If realized, the many pipelines of the Corridor – with names like Nabucco, White Stream and the Trans-Adriatic – would allow the countries of the EU to diversify away from Russian-controlled routes – notorious for being shut off at politically expedient moments. Greater diversity in Europe’s energy security – particularly in natural gas – would not only be a commercially prudent move, but also geopolitically well-played: not allowing Russia to divide Europe according to energy consumption.
The Prague summiteers produced an ambitious declaration: the EU, Turkey and Azerbaijan will sign a transit agreement for the Southern Corridor next month. If realized so soon, this will for once put EU diversification plans ahead of Russian countermeasures. The wrinkle is that Russia is not the only problem; Turkey, the geographical bridge to the vast resources of the Caspian is currently the greatest obstacle to an agreement.
This has a lot less to do with Turkey’s increasingly close relations with Russia and much more to do with the EU’s treatment of Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan and his cabinet have made it clear that if the EU wants Turkish territory for the Southern Corridor, it will have to open the energy chapter of its EU accession process, for which the Turks have met all the technical criteria, but remains closed due to the efforts of European governments that would prefer Turkey never integrate with Western neighbors.
The price of this myopia is steep. European consumers risk losing Turkey as an energy bridge. But even if an agreement cannot be carved out for June, Turkey can potentially be bypassed by a pipeline or liquefied natural gas shipments across the Black Sea. Most importantly, however, the standoff over Turkey risks losing the key producer those European consumers are trying to reach: Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is the crossover area of the concentric circles that are the Black Sea and Caspian regions, it is Europe’s key to Central Asia’s natural resources and growing markets, but also Eurasia’s gateway to a world not permeated with Russia pressure in regional security, domestic politics and energy geopolitics. If European policymakers were serious about constructing a viable Southern Corridor, they would be falling over each other to cozy up to Azerbaijan’s leadership.
But in reality, Azerbaijan is increasingly feeling left out in the cold. Even though its Caspian gas fields of Shah Deniz II and Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli hold enough available resources to justify the first phase of the strategic Nabucco natural gas pipeline – the centerpiece of the Corridor – and Azerbaijan is the only route through which the resources for the second phase, in Turkmenistan, can be reached, European leaders, in conjunction with industry, have so far refused to make Baku an offer it can’t refuse. The prospect of traditionally higher European gas prices is no longer sufficient, as Russia and Iran have stepped up their bids. As Turkey stalls, European leaders will have to offer Azerbaijan something more: perhaps help in resolving its festering conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
If they are committed to Europe’s energy security, Turkey-skeptics and critics of Europe’s eastward engagement will have to give in to some of Turkey’s demands and offer Azerbaijan a more attractive package. Without serious commitments from Brussels, both Baku and Ankara would be imprudent to sacrifice their multi-vector foreign and energy policies. Azerbaijan’s leadership in particular will make sure to keep all options open in its gas exports: some to Russia, some to Iran, some to Turkey and some to Greece and Italy. This means not enough to have a significant impact on European energy security.
This would be an unfortunate development not only for European consumers, desperately in need of more diversity, but for producer countries like Azerbaijan whose preferred export route is to the West – because it means more than just money for gas: it means access to world markets and Western integration. Delegates at the next pipeline summit will have to realize that bringing Azerbaijan and Turkey on side will require offers they can’t refuse.
Borut Grgic is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels. Alexandros Petersen is Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and associate director of the Eurasia Energy Center at the Atlantic Council. This article originally appeared in Hurriyet Daily News.