European Energy Security Should Remain a U.S. Priority

WASHINGTON—Why does the United States care so much about Europe’s energy security? This question comes up regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, at times with a feeling that U.S. policymakers worry more about energy security in Europe than even the Europeans do. The standard Washington response is that the United States and Europe share a mutual energy challenge. As NATO allies, energy security affects collective security; and a Europe that is not energy secure will be a weaker U.S. partner in addressing global challenges. Do these arguments hold water, however?

The energy situations of the United States and Europe are diverging. Thanks to the boom in unconventional oil and gas, U.S. dependence on imported energy has declined to only 11 percent in 2014 and is headed still lower. Meanwhile, Europe imports 47 percent of its energy needs, a dependence that is likely to rise. Since European energy demand is expected to remain flat or decline going forward, the energy situation there will affect the United States less and less.

At the same time, what happens in the growing demand centers of Asia is critical to global energy security and climate change, suggesting that Washington ought to be directing most of its attention there. The United States also has important energy work to do in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa, all regions that benefit from U.S. advice and assistance. Europe knows what it needs to do to improve its energy security — steps such as market integration, expanded cross-border infrastructure, and enforced competition policy. The issue has been the political will to get it done. And if Europeans continue to oppose fracking and nuclear power, perhaps energy security is not such a priority after all.

Yet, while U.S. and European approaches to energy policy differ in some areas, they are mostly aligned. The transatlantic partnership is vital to promoting a clean energy future in the run-up to December’s UN climate change conference and beyond. Equally important, U.S. engagement on energy issues in Europe remains important for shared national security interests, and is very much welcomed on most of the continent. Energy remains a favored tool in Russia’s arsenal to gain political influence and play European countries against each other in the effort to weaken the West’s resistance to its aggression. Active diplomacy by Washington, particularly in Ukraine where the United States and the European Union work closely together on energy reform, and in Central and Eastern Europe helps these countries resist Russia’s disingenuous entreaties.

Notwithstanding the allegiance publicly pledged to European solidarity, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe often admit in private that they do not fully trust each other or Brussels when it comes to energy. They fear being left out in the cold, so to speak, if their neighbors sign up for whatever project Russia is currently flogging. The United States can act as an honest broker, working with European Commission Vice President for the Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič and Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete to help countries overcome suspicions and advance the projects that will help provide real energy security. As a strong advocate for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States is trusted in the region and these countries appreciate Washington’s efforts. For this reason, the United States was asked to participate in the recent meeting of the Central Eastern and South-Eastern European Gas Connectivity initiative in Dubrovnik, which was meant to foster regional cooperation on energy infrastructure.

Šefčovič and Arias Cañete are moving forward cleverly and with determination to create a true European common market in energy, a union that will enhance security for all EU members. A key area of their focus is gas and power grid interconnections and regulatory convergence that will enable energy, including soon-to-be-available liquefied natural gas from the United States, to flow more freely around Europe. They are sensibly urging countries not to be distracted by grand projects advertised by Russia as game changers — such as Turkish Stream or the expanded Nord Stream — which are actually ploys meant to divide Europe. This message is echoed by Washington. The Southern Gas Corridor — a project promoted by the European Union and the United States to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, one that will offer real energy diversification — is the exception.

There is clear momentum in the European Union and the neighborhood to reduce energy vulnerabilities. By undermining Russia’s ability to use a favorite weapon to stir up trouble, Europe’s economic and national security will be strengthened. These goals strongly merit continued high-level U.S. support and engagement with its European partners.

Douglas Hengel is a senior resident fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Follow him @DougHengel54.

Views expressed are the author's alone and not those of the Department of State.

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