From Israel to the Baltic Sea: The great energy game and the risks for Europe

Francesco Sassi

6 mins - 23 de Octubre de 2023, 05:40

There is no peace for European energy security, and there won’t be none over the next months. In just a few days, the incoming war between Hamas and Israel and the likely sabotage of a gas pipeline connecting Finland to Estonia have cancelled the illusion generated by the combination of decreasing prices and two mild winters in a row. The period ahead seems to be characterised by uncertainties related to international crisis and attacks to critical infrastructures, bringing about a slowdown of the energy transition and a retreat of international energy diplomacy. All factors which are fuelling once again instability and making it a structural element of the energy markets, directly affecting the life of European citizens, and reverting energy as the perfect tool for power politics. 

The blitzkrieg manoeuvre by Hamas militants in the South of Israel, killing hundreds and hundreds of citizens, kidnapping dozens and hiding them within their territories while launching multiple rocket barrages over half of Israel has in fact brought back the Middle East into a spiral of violence without any end in sight. In the ensuing violence, the Netanyahu government has not waited with arms folded. Israeli artillery and jets have grounded to zero tens of civilian buildings in the Gaza Strip, causing severe destruction over a population already struggling after years of deprivations and hardship, living in one of the areas with the highest population density in the world.

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Now, Israel’s army is sieging Gaza, possibly waiting for the optimal conditions for a ground invasion. Fearing retaliations on critical infrastructures and in order to preserve its energy security, the government has opted to stop offshore production of a major gas field close to the Hamas territories and shut another pipeline transporting gas directly to Egypt, which caused a reduction of gas exports to the Arab neighbour, already struggling with dwindling domestic supplies. Meanwhile, the US President has displayed its maximum support to Israel while positioning US carrier strike groups to deter other powers to join the fight. At the border with Lebanon, the exchange of artillery fire is continuous and Iran, a major Hamas’ ally, has at its disposal different pressure levers to further destabilise regional security. At the same time, Arab communities in Jerusalem, the Middle Eastern and other European cities are in turmoil.

Against this background, the largest oil and gas producers of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, together with the regional powers of Turkey and Egypt are sitting on the fence, ready to benefit from the Middle Eastern organised chaos. Facing an inflamed situation in the enlarged Mediterranean, Europe is split on what to do. Even if all supported the right of Israel to defend itself, cross vetoes threaten to paralyse the Commission and the Council in the weeks ahead, hindering any proactive role to play in defusing the conflict.

In this dynamic scenario, the main danger for the EU energy security comes, paradoxically, not from the Middle East and nor from the oil market. After what happened to Nord Stream a year ago, more and more clues point to the involvement of a state actor in the probable sabotage of yet another submarine gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea, dangerously close to Russian waters. The Baltic connector, linking Finland to the European gas network since 2020, has been a marginal asset for the EU energy security. And yet, starting from last weekend, Helsinki will have to rely just on LNG across the whole winter as at least five months will be needed to repair the damaged pipeline. The fear is that this is just the beginning of a series of sabotages to energy infrastructures across Europe.

By analysing demand and supply fundamentals, the European gas market has reacted foolishly to the news. With gas storages full and demand at historical lows, close to the COVID-19 era, nobody could understand the price surge that has brought month-ahead prices at the highest levels in nine months, with daily spikes resembling the days just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The cause of such market madness should not be found in the equilibrium between demand and supply. Rather, it generates from the deep politicisation of energy markets, transformation commodity trade into an extremely efficient tool of foreign policy and grand strategy. In a world where citizens are witnessing the dramatic consequences of climate change, the fallouts of a war on European soil and the fragmentation of the international order, energy represents the perfect ensemble through which to devise complex strategies and achieve multiple political goals.

All this requires cunning, deep knowledge of energy markets’ dynamics, other than abundant cynicism and Machiavellian determination. Talents which appear to be copious in the European neighbourhood and beyond the oceans, but dissembled within European institutions, far more concerned on prevailing over the counterpart while getting lost in endlessly negotiations. The EU’s wavering steps in energy geopolitics are increasingly becoming a threat to both the strengthening of its energy security and the acceleration of the energy transition. The more so just a few weeks ahead of the crucial COP28.

In light of tensions in the Middle East, the Caucasus and obviously Ukraine, a cooperation between producers and consumers looks increasingly doomed to fail. While oil and gas continue to be fundamental for energy security, even in the West, a great divide stands between the OPEC+ Alliance and its critics – the US and EU among all – whereas China continues to maintain an unmatched flexibility in its diplomacy with hydrocarbon and critical raw materials producers in almost every continent.

In each of these scenarios, energy is and will remain the recurrent element in a power game. A competition not led by anarchy, but instead played by rules of engagement defined by markets which nobody controls, yet to which everyone tries to impose the rhythm of its own political agenda.
Se puede leer la versión en español en Cinco Días, y se puede encontrar la versión original del artículo en italiano en Energia 
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