The Azeri Turkish gas agreement - a new challenge for the EU

By Inessa Baban

After a long process of negotiations, Azerbaijan signed three new agreements on 7 June, 2010 with Turkey for the sale and transportation of its natural gas to European countries via Turkish territory. The conclusion of these agreements has welcome in Brussels which sent its representative to the 17th Caspian Oil and Gas Conference held recently in Baku (2-3 June) to secure so that there can be no failure of its signature according to one EU representative in Azerbaijan.

The importance of Azeri-Turkish gas deal is significant to Brussels because it strengthens the chances of achievement the EU sustained Nabucco project, whose main objective is to reduce Russian energy weight on European markets. Or, the first part of Nabucco project was accomplished one year ago on 19 July 2009 when Turkey and four EU member states (Romanian, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria) signed the intergovernmental agreement whose follow up hung on Azeri Turkish energy dialogue.

From this time forward, the EU has to rethink its approaches vis-à-vis the two Turkic countries in particular, Azerbaijan and Turkey and the South Caucasus region in general because the new situation address three major requests to Brussels:

- the elaboration of a strong and clear strategy in the South Caucasus region
- the direct involvement of EU in Nagorno-Karabakh issue
- the re-examination of Turkey's European integration.

How ready is the EU to deal with this new challenge and how many capabilities and willingness exist inside of EU to carry out these potential responsibilities?

Despite the implementation of different programmes and projects begun in 1990’s years, the EU is still accused of lacking strategy in the South Caucasus region. On the one side, there are some critical voices of EU member states diplomats who consider that Brussels has been more focused on the production of bureaucratic papers than on taking concrete steps in the region. On the other side, the EU representatives in the Caucasian countries underline that their mandates given by the EU member states limit their actions and call for a greater implication of EU in the South Caucasus. On 20 May 2010, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution which also asks for the need of a strong EU strategy in the South Caucasus region.

The construction of Nabucco gas pipeline will directly connect European markets to Azeri gas as well as it will link the European countries to Nagorno-Karabakh issue forcing the EU to increase its role in the process of its settlement. Firstly, an unsolved conflict represents a latent threat to the security of pipelines which cross this region as the Russian-Georgian war fully confirmed in August 2008 when an explosion affected the BTC pipeline and stopped the oil flow to western direction.

Secondly, the influence of Russia in Nagorno- Karabakh issue could be used as ‘a tool of pressure’ on Azerbaijan if Moscow's interests are damaged by Baku's energy politics and so, on EU's energy supply as one of EU diplomats suggested.

Thirdly, the solution of Nagorno-Karabagh issue is one of major objectives of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy whose interests in Nabucco project are economically as well as politically. So, if the European officials are concerned by energy security of their citizens, Azerbaijan is interested in assuring de facto the territorial integrity of the country and getting positive solution of Nagorno-Karabagh issue. But as long as the EU doesn’t take part at the process of negotiations within Minsk Group, Brussels will remain an outsider to this regional problem whose implications and consequences could be extra-regional as well.

There are three possible ways that could permit Brussels to get an official place at the round table of negotiations on Nagorno-Karabagh issue:
- minimally, to get an “observer status” as it has in “5+2 Group” engaged with Transnistria's question of the Republic of Moldova
- intermediary, to be represented formally by France who is one of the co-chairmen of Minsk Group
- maximally, to become the forth co-chairman of Minsk Group.

As one of EU representatives in Azerbaijan suggested Brussels is neither interested in getting an “observer status”, nor being represented by one of its member states because of EU’s ambitions to increase its role as a political actor. So, the last version seems to be the most eligible and there are good chances that EU will be accepted by Azerbaijan as well as by Armenia. Even if there are some internal voices of Azerbaijan who perceive the EU more pro-Armenian than pro-Azerbaijan, according to other opinions, the EU is not more pro-Armenian than US, France or Russia, the 3 co-chairmen of the Minsk Group are. 

> Caspian Region Map
Finally, there is the third issue that EU has to deal with which touches one of its most complex and sensitive questions: the European integration of Turkey. The major problems which actually impede Turkey's European integration are the internal economic difficulties of EU, the lack of unity inside of EU member states and so called non preparedness of Turkey to fulfil all European requests. Turkish officials consider that the reticence of the biggest actors of EU is the real problem that blocks Turkey’s access to the EU calling Brussels several times the need to change this approach. During the Munich Conference on Security Policy of 2008, the Prime Minister of Turkey presented his critical position against German initiative to consider Turkey like a privileged partner of EU.

In 2010 Ankara has more cards to play than ever because thanks to the geographical position and geopolitical context, Turkey is nowadays the most important transit hub for energy resources of Central Asia and Caspian Sea to Europe being the alternative to Russian routes. Turkey has become indispensable to the accomplishment of EU backed energy projects because Nabucco gas pipeline, ITGI (Turkey-Greece-Italy Interconnector), TAP(Trans Adriatic pipeline) have to cross its territory which host already BTC and BTE western pipelines. Turkey’s ambitions go beyond the aims of a transit country because Ankara’s attempts are to become a regional leader whose interests should be taken in account by regional and extra-regional actors. Turkey is decided to use the flow of oil and gas according to the objectives of its foreign policy as well as the rich energy countries do in promoting their own interests. Or, one of the most negotiated question of Azeri Turkish gas agreement was over the terms of re-export because of Turkey's insistence to have the right to re-export gas from Shah Deniz II to Europe (Hurriyet, 12 June 2010).

The immediate effect of the conclusion of Azeri Turkish gas deal was the statement of Turkish Prime Minister who emphasized on 12 June that ‘the EU has trifled with Turkey for the past 50 years and continues to do so’ reminding to the EU ‘that Turkey was doing the best she can to join the EU as a full member’ (News.az). His unspoken message was that Turkey’s future  control of all pipelines projected by EU from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia region could rearrange all energy map of Brussels if its interests are not took in account. Moreover the Turkish Russian partnership and Turkish Azeri brotherhood enforce Turkey's position vis-à-vis of EU that could explain why Nabucco pipeline is seen by the majority of EU member states complementary and not contrary to the Russian South Stream pipeline project.

In conclusion, the EU’s responsibilities have been multiplied and the evolution of this situation firstly depends on how Brussels understands to act in Turkey’s case because decreasing Russian energy weight is equally with the increasing Turkish role in energy security of EU. The biggest advantage of this complex context is that EU has the possibility to consolidate its diplomacy in a unitary and responsible manner trying to play smartly between to Eurasian actors.
Inessa Baban is a PhD fellow at the Sorbonne University in Paris and visiting scholar at the Azerbaijani Centre for Strategic Studies.