Manfred Weber, a candidate for the office of president of the European Commission, is speaking out against the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. What is the German government's response?
German politician Manfred Weber, currently the parliamentary leader of the European People's Party (EPP), is hoping to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker after the European Parliament elections from May 23-26. At the beginning of the week he had announced that, as head of the European Commission, he would block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The project was not in the European Union's interest, Weber told the Polish newspaper Polska Times, saying the pipeline could increase the bloc's dependence on Russian gas.
Although the EPP is affiliated with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the stance taken by Weber — himself a CSU politician — on Nord Stream 2 is at variance with that of the German government.
Berlin supports the project and defends the gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea as a contribution to a secure energy supply. And that support continues, according to the deputy government spokesperson, Ulrike Demmer.
"The German government's position on Nord Stream 2 remains unchanged," Demmer said in Berlin on Wednesday.
Demmer pointed out that the German government had stressed time and again that Nord Stream 2 was primarily a business project. Weber had made his statement in Brussels as the European People's Party's candidate for the office of president of the European Commission, Demmer said, which was why she would "not comment on it here and now during the German government press conference."
Transit countries feel sidelined
Nord Stream 2 is the second pipeline in the Baltic Sea that would deliver Russian gas directly to Germany. Its sole shareholder is the Russian state-owned company Gazprom, which is covering half the pipeline's cost of €9.5 billion ($ 10.6 billion). The other half is financed by five European energy companies: Germany's Uniper and Wintershall, Austria's OMV, Dutch-British Shell and France's Engie.
Opposition to Nord Stream 2 is particularly fierce in Poland and Ukraine. Both countries fear that they might lose their roles as transit countries for Russian gas deliveries. Once Nord Stream 2 becomes operational, Ukraine's gas delivery system may no longer be needed for transporting Russian natural gas to EU countries. In that case, the government in Kyiv would not only have to forfeit transit fees; it would also lose political leverage vis-à-vis Moscow.
Ukraine, EU interests safeguarded?
Berlin's official position on this has always been that its approval of Nord Stream 2 has, from the start, been subject to the condition that the transit of gas to the EU via Ukraine remained largely intact. And Demmer reiterated this stance on Wednesday: "We've always stressed that we support the European Commission in finding a solution with Russia and Ukraine. This is still valid."
She said the drafting of the new gas transit treaty between Russia and Ukraine was the focus of trilateral negotiations between the commission, Russia and Ukraine. "We are in close contact with all parties involved," Demmer confirmed.
Why the German government — as opposed to the EPP's Weber— believes that the construction of Nord Stream 2 is in the EU's interest, was a question that Demmer was unable to answer. Instead, Annika Einhorn, press officer at the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, took over the baton and again underlined the project's business character.
According to Einhorn, gas demand will rise over the next couple of years because Germany will have to make up for phasing out nuclear energy and coal: "For this reason, it's in Germany's, as well as in Europe's, interest to meet that demand for gas through a variety of channels that we are currently exploring." Einhorn said, however, that building liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals was another possibility.