European Energy Security: A New Pattern of External Stability and Internal Risks


The fundamental dilemma of energy policy is its irreconcilable aims. Energy should be cheap, secure, and clean. While it is comparatively easy to achieve two of these objectives, it is, at least in today’s world, impossible to reach all three of them at the same time. Fossil fuels form the center of energy problems. They provide for 76 percent[1] of European energy consumption and raise main concerns of supply security and environmental impact. The European Union has responded to the conundrum of energy policy with a miscellany of legislation, with mixed results. While some conventional concerns about European energy security have been adequately addressed, the transformation of the EU’s energy system toward a carbon-free economy poses new risks for energy security.

European Oil Security: A Mixed Picture

Petroleum is traditionally the commodity first referred to when the question of energy security is raised. As a result of being traded on a global market, supply disruptions in one area of the world cause almost immediate price reactions around the globe, affecting all consumers regardless of their actual region of supply and type of consumed petroleum. Consequently, independence from the global oil market is unrealistic. However, the problems of peak oil prices and possible disruptions of supply remain, with probably severe consequences for economic stability. The European Union’s answer to these fundamental problems has been threefold in recent years:

1. Strengthening the crisis mechanism: To protect consumers from supply disruptions, member states of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and a couple of additional countries have built up strategic petroleum reserves. But as oil security is a non-excludable public good, the market will generally under-supply reserves to meet supply interruptions, and individual nations will tend to under-invest in or completely free ride on oil security. Until recently, this problem also applied to the EU,  where some member states had only small or practically no strategic reserve. Directive 2009/119 by the European Council[2] on emergency oil reserves addressed the issue and imposed an obligation on member states to maintain minimum stocks of crude oil and petroleum products for at least 90 days of average daily net imports or 61 days of average daily domestic consumption, whichever of the two quantities is higher. This provision is even stricter than the IEA regulation and will have to be transposed into national law by the end of 2012.

2. Expansion of overall supply: Generally speaking, oil security depends on overall global consumption, the number of producers, and the stability of supplier countries and transport infrastructure. Given the global characteristics of the petroleum market, oil security ought to be an international effort. Oil security, and energy security in general, has gained some importance in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). However, deliberations were clearly dominated by questions on natural gas. Consequently, energy security played its biggest role in the Union’s foreign policy toward Russia and the Caspian region. Toward the main producers of oil in the Middle East and Africa, however, the inclusion of energy interests in CFSP was rather an exception. Even in the case of a strong institutionalization of energy policy in external relations, as in the legal cooperation framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the actual outcome was limited. Member states preferred to pursue their own policies toward energy-rich countries in the Middle East and Maghreb.[3]Especially France, Italy, Spain, and the UK repeatedly undercut each other in their efforts to get access to energy resources in the region, especially in Algeria and Libya.

3. Improvement of energy efficiency: The EU and its member states pin their hopes to diminish the effects of high oil prices on the European economy on changes in the energy mix and the improvement of energy efficiency. Even though 62 percent of petroleum products are consumed by the transportation sector,[4] which is not included in the EU’s energy efficiency policy, the aim is nevertheless correctly set, as a rising oil price leads—generally with some time lag—to higher prices of other energy commodities, especially alternative fossil fuels.[5]

Energy Efficiency Improvement: The Funding Challenge

Although decisions on the energy mix fall exclusively into the area of national competence, member states agreed on joint targets for energy efficiency and transferred competences in this area to the supranational level. The EU’s “2020 Strategy For Sustainable Growth” aims to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by the end of this decade. However, despite various measures at all levels of government, the recent impact assessment of the European Commission concluded Europe is not on track to realize its target. Nationally-adopted policies for energy efficiency improvement have not been ambitious enough to reach the 20 percent aim, and illustrate “piecemeal thinking” rather than a comprehensive approach, as the Commission’s impact assessment states.

The problems originate partly from the “Services Directive” and the “Cogeneration Directive”[6] that are currently in force. The soft wordings of these two directives on energy efficiency did not include fixed obligations and most member states are failing to meet the minimum agreed-upon energy-saving targets. To remedy this, the Commission put forward a proposal for a new directive[7] that includes a string of policies and measures covering the full energy chain, including energy generation, transmission, and distribution; buildings and appliances; and households and industry. Transportation, which consumes a vital proportion of energy products in Europe, will continue to be excluded from the regulatory framework. As in the past, energy saving in the transport sector will be steered by national duties and taxes instead. The proposal for the new directive includes binding targets for the public sector and energy-producing companies. Yet, measures in other sectors will not be binding, and even the proposed (binding) targets include some, probably decisive, opt-out clauses.

A leading role in energy efficiency improvement is envisioned for the public sector, whose total spending is equivalent to 19 percent of Europe’s GDP. It should lead investment in more efficient buildings and technologies and thereby stimulate overall market transformation. The Commission proposes a binding target of 3 percent of public buildings to be renovated annually. However, the proposal lacks a clear definition of the term “renovation” and excludes small public buildings with a total floor area under 250 square meters. Furthermore, it is also unclear how the proposed measures will be financed. Investments in energy efficiency are beneficial in the long run, as decreasing energy consumption can free up public resources for other purposes. An analysis from October 2011 by the German banking group Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau in conjunction with the Jülich Research Center on the effectiveness of energy efficiency investments showed that public investment in the promotion of energy-efficient construction and refurbishment in 2010 generated 400-500 percent in revenue for public authorities.[8] Economically strong member states already used assets from the stimulus packages in recent years to invest in energy efficiency. The problem, however, is that most of the countries with the lowest efficiency rates, and therefore the biggest potential for improvement, currently lack adequate resources for investments due to the public debt crisis and are unable or unwilling to redirect assets toward efficiency improvement. These states are mainly situated in Eastern Europe and many of them do not regard investments in efficiency improvement as a priority. Instead, they focus public spending primarily on energy infrastructure to diminish their harsh dependence on Russian energy imports. Diversification of suppliers and extension of domestic production are regarded by their governments as more promising ways to increase energy security than efficiency improvement.

Gas Security: From Source of Concern to Anchor of Stability?

Eastern Europe’s primary concerns about energy security do not focus on the security of oil supply, but the reliable supply of affordable natural gas. This view is shared by most EU member states, as all have to import some or all of their gas from abroad. With the foreseeable depletion of resources in the North Sea, the share of imported gas will rise even further from currently 64.2 percent of total consumption. Europe’s most important supplier is Russia, which provides 34.2 percent of imports, followed by Norway with 30.7 percent and Algeria with 14.1 percent. Furthermore, Russia is unequivocally the dominant supplier in Eastern Europe, where Russian gas accounts for around 80 percent of domestic consumption. Some member states like Finland, the Baltic States, and Slovakia receive all their imports from Russian monopolist Gazprom. The fact that the majority of European gas imports is transported by pipeline and that European distribution networks lack flexibility compounds the problem. The system infrastructure proved to be unable to redirect gas from Western and Southern to Eastern Europe during the major supply disruptions in 2006 and 2009 in the course of the conflict over transit tariffs between Russia and Ukraine due to missing interconnectors.

However, the supply crisis of 2009 was a wake-up call for Europe and natural gas security across Europe has improved since 2010. The main reasons for this are improvements of gas infrastructure and structural changes on the international gas market. The EU and single member states took important steps toward an integrated network system during the last two years. With the development of new interconnectors, gas storage facilities, liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, and distribution pipelines, natural gas can nowadays be shipped around in Europe in larger quantities. Even though recent improvements still fall far short of what is needed for the establishment of a common natural gas market, they permit enough trans-border trade to enable sufficient crisis reaction to supply disruptions. Furthermore, infrastructure development, in combination with increased spot price gas supply, made Russian long-term fixed price gas contestable, especially in its key market Germany. The new availability of spot price gas in Europe is mainly the result of large-scale shale gas exploration in the U.S.; natural gas is suddenly abundant on the international market. Before, the U.S. was regarded as one of the likely main importers of LNG and, from a European perspective, as a primary competitor for supplies. Yet, due to surging U.S. domestic shale gas production, demand from the U.S. for LNG has been smaller than expected and is likely to decline further. Even though reduced demand from the U.S. was replaced in recent months by surging demand from Japan after the shutdown of nuclear power plants in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami disaster, the beneficial effect of U.S. gas independence for Europe is visible already, as spot priced gas supply has expanded rapidly. German energy suppliers RWE and E.ON already started to renegotiate price fixtures of long-term delivery contracts with Gazprom. A successful outcome, i.e., reduction of prices, however, cannot be expected in the short run, as power disparities between both sides likely impede compromise. German energy companies suffer from steeply falling revenues due to the nuclear phase-out, while Gazprom’s earnings have reached unprecedented heights as a consequence of continuously high crude oil prices. RWE’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, for example, have fallen by 20 percent in 2011 compared to the previous year, limiting resources for investment in projects to diversify supply away from Gazprom.[9]

Yet, clear signs of a shift in the power balance between Gazprom and European consumers until the end of the decade are detectable. First, the integration of European distribution networks will continue in the coming years. Further interconnectors will be completed across Europe,[10] which will facilitate intra-European gas trade, bring Europe closer to a common gas market, and strengthen the bargaining power of European energy companies in negotiations with Gazprom.

Second, the long-planned “Southern Gas Corridor,” which will transport energy from the Caspian region to Europe, and thereby circumvent Russian territory, is finally taking shape. On 12 September 2011 the EU officially opened negotiations with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, which should bring gas from Central Asia to the EU. Currently, Turkmenistan sells its gas to Russia, which allows Gazprom to differentiate prices substantially between its domestic and foreign customers. Direct trade between the EU and Turkmenistan would strongly improve the bargaining position of European energy companies vis-à-vis Gazprom. A second important development is the end of the bidding process for 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from the offshore Shah Deniz II field in Azerbaijan on 1 October 2011. Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR will announce the outcome in April 2012. Clinching the bid is almost a sine qua non for the successful development of any of the competing pipeline projects, which are Nabucco, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), and the Turkey-Greece-Italy Interconnector (ITGI). Gas from Shah Deniz II is expected to be available for use by 2017 and all bidders promised that their pipeline will be ready by then.

Furthermore, on 26 December 2011, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the construction of the Trans-Anadolu Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which will connect with any new pipeline leading to Europe. Which pipeline project will finally be successful is difficult to predict, because of the multitude of powerful interests. Not unlikely seems to be a merger between Nabucco and one of the other projects, as preferred by the European Commission. What is crucial, however, is that there is now convincing evidence that at least one of the projects will be realized, which was far from certain for a long time.

Third, it is by no means obvious that European dependence on Russian gas is going to rise. This argument has so often been repeated that it has almost strayed into tautology. Because European gas imports are rising and because Russia is Europe’s primary supplier and holds the world’s largest reserves, Europe will become increasingly dependent on Russia even if the Southern Corridor is developed. However, there is little empirical evidence so far that this is going to happen. While gas imports from Russia did indeed rise over the last decade by roughly 12 percent,[11] the relative share of Russian gas in the EU has declined sharply from 47.7 percent in 2001 to just 34.2 percent in 2009.


Main Origin of Natural Gas Imports, EU-27, 2001-2009 (% of Extra EU-27 Imports)






































































Trinidad and Tobago






























source: Eurostat


In light of new discoveries of natural gas in Europe, like the discovery by Noble Energy off the coast of Cyprus, estimated to be 8 trillion cubic feet; huge shale gas reserves in Algeria that could hold up to 1,000 trillion cubic feet; and the United States possibly becoming a net exporter within the next decade, it seems not very likely that the share of Russian gas in the European market will notably increase, even if European consumption continues to rise. Russian and Caspian producers are already concerned whether European demand will actually be adequate to fill the envisioned pipeline projects. Thus, a realistic assessment of gas security must conclude that cautionary tales of import dependence on Russia are oftentimes exaggerated. This is even more the case as the energy relationship between Europe and Russia cannot simply be regarded as a one-sided dependence, but is better characterized as mutual interdependence, as Russia lacks alternative buyers due to missing transit pipelines to Asia.

Coal: Dirty, But Widely Used Despite the Emissions Trading Scheme

Hard coal and lignite, which combined account for 15 percent of European energy consumption, are unproblematic from a security perspective but undermine the aim of clean energy. The carbon content of coal is about 75 to 94 percent higher than of natural gas. It is, however, widely used in Germany and Eastern European countries. The EU launched the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2005 to combat greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the energy and industrial sectors. A functioning system would have put a heavy price tag on electricity generation from coal, but so far the ETS has had practically zero impact. According to a recent study by UBS Investment Research, the ETS has cost consumers €210 billion. Had this money been used in a targeted approach to replace the EU’s dirtiest coal power plants, emissions could have been reduced by 43 percent.[12] So far, the ETS has not produced a sufficient carbon price. The price is far too low and volatile and, therefore, impedes any reasonable investment decision. At the same time, decision-makers in Brussels and some national capitals, especially Berlin, are fixated on the expansion of renewables and adopted multiple instruments for their promotion. The incoherent and nationally-oriented backing of renewables has proven to be extremely costly and of questionable benefit for the reduction of GHG emissions.[13]

The New Threat to European Energy Security: Under-Investment

Europeans must rethink their current approach for decarbonizing their economy and transforming their energy system. Large proportions of European energy policy are highly inefficient and, therefore, unsuitable for a successful completion of the 2020 Strategy, which tends to cut GHG emissions compared with 1990 levels, increase the share of renewables in the energy mix, and reduce energy consumption, all by 20 percent until 2020. The true challenge for European energy policy comes from the vast amount of investment needed to reach those aims, while assuring security of supply and affordable prices at the same time. The European Commission estimates that energy sector investments of €1 trillion, of which €500 billion to be spent on infrastructure, are needed through the end of this decade. The open question is where these assets will come from in times of tight public budgets and a tenuous investment environment for the private business sector. The Commission already identified a limited number of priority projects of common European interest to focus investments. These include an offshore grid in the North Sea; interconnections between power grids in Southwestern, Central Eastern, and Southeastern Europe; an integration of the Baltic electricity and gas market into the Central and Southeastern European market; the Southern Gas Corridor; and the removal of bottlenecks in the North-South Gas Corridor in Western Europe. These projects alone will cost about €200 billion, of which only €70 billion EUR is secured.[14]

Threats to energy security have mainly been expected to originate from outside Europe. But recent developments have changed this pattern and most problems of energy security nowadays stem from inside Europe. European governments need to reassess current legislation and spend public money in more intelligent ways. Presently, the EU and its member states use a cluttered toolbox instruments that does not produce the results needed. Decision-makers need to develop policies based on the outcomes to be achieved and abandon their role as judge, jury, and executioner of energy technologies. The European Commission and national governments cannot be considered impartial judges, nor are they able to foresee future technological developments. Renewables and fossil fuels alike must stand the market test. The uncritical expansion of certain energy sources by extensive subsidies will harm Europe’s prosperity and bring about severe problems for energy supply security. What is needed are market conditions under which new technologies can flourish. This requires the inclusion of external costs in fossil fuel prices as well as the termination of subsidies for alternative energy sources. Getting the carbon price right and ending the preferential treatment of certain technologies will be key for Europe’s future energy security.


[1] These and following numbers, unless stated otherwise, from: Eurostat, “Energy Production and Imports: Data from September 2011,” <> (13 December 2011). European Union, Energy, Transport and Environment Indicators (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2011).

[2] European Union, Council Directive 2009/119/EC of 14 September 2009 Imposing an Obligation on Member States to Maintain Minimum Stocks of Crude Oil and/or Petroleum Product (Brussels: Official Journal of the European Union, 14 September 2009).

[3] Cf. Richard Youngs, Energy Security: Europe’s New Foreign Policy Challenge (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 57-63.

[4] European Commission (DG Environment), “Annexes to Sectoral Costs of Environmental Policy,” <> (22 December 2011).

[5] Cf. Frederik Hedenus / Christian Azar / Daniel J. A. Johansson, “Energy Security Policies in EU-25: The Expected Cost of Oil Supply Disruptions,” Energy Policy 38 (2010),1241-1250.

[6] European Union, Directive 2004/8/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 11 February 2004 on the Promotion of Cogeneration Based on a Useful Heat Demand in the Internal Energy Market and Amending Directive 92/42/EEC (Brussels: Official Journal of the European Union, 11 February 2004). European Union, Directive 2006/32/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 5 April 2006 on Energy End-Use Efficiency and Energy Services and Repealing Council Directive 93/76/EEC (Brussels: Official Journal of the European Union, 5 April 2006).

[7] European Commission, COM (2011) 370 final: Proposal for a Directive on Energy Efficiency and Repealing Directives 2004/8/EC and 2006/32/EC (Brussels, 22 June 2011).

[8] KfW Bankengruppe, “KfW Programmes Energy-efficient Construction and Refurbishment: Public Budgets Benefit Up to Fivefold From ‘Promotional Euros’ – Press Release No 092 E” (Frankfurt, 27 October 2011), <> (14 December 2011)

[9] “Gescheiterte Energiepartnerschaft: RWE verliert Lieblingspartner Gazprom,” Financial Times Deutschland, 22 December 2011.

[10] Cf. European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas, TenYear Network Development Plan 20112020, INV02310 (Brussels, 28 January 2011), Annex A: Infrastructure Projects.

[11] Russian gas exports to Europe rose constantly from 2001 (4,539,709 TJ) to 2008 (5,107,614 TJ) and dropped sharply in 2009 (4,520,138), primarily due to the economic downturn.

[12] Sid Maher, “Europe’s $276bn Carbon Waste,” The Australian, 23 November 2011. So far, even critical commentators of the report have not questioned numbers on incurred costs. See Climate Markets & Investment Association, Response to UBS Report (Press Release, 18 November 2011). Jeff Coelho, “UBS Analysts Predict 70 pct Collapse in EU CO2 Prices,” Climate Justice Now, 18 November 2011.  Cf. Friends of the Earth Europe, The EU Emissions Trading System: Failing to Deliver (Brussels: Friends of the Earth Europe, 2010).

[13] See Dieter Helm, “What Next for EU Energy Policy?” in Green, Safe, Cheap: Where Next For EU Energy Policy, ed. Katinka Barysch (London: Centre for European Reform, 2011),18. Georg Zachmann, “Renewables in a Single EU Electricity Market,” in Green, Safe, Cheap: Where Next For EU Energy Policy, ed. Katinka Barysch (London: Centre for European Reform, 2011), 65ff.

[14] Added up assets for energy investment from the European Stimulus Plan, the proposed EU budget 2014-2020, assets from the European Investment Bank, and private investment via the Connecting Europe Facility.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.