PRAGUE -- The European Union is hosting talks in
Prague aimed at establishing long-term energy and transport links with the
Middle East and Central Asia.
The "Southern Corridor" summit brings together leaders and ministers of the EU and Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Egypt, and Iraq.
All participants are either key suppliers of natural gas, crucial transit countries, or both.
RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas says that for the first time, the EU is giving its open backing to plans to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
This would allow Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to feed their gas directly into the Nabucco gas pipeline.
Lobjakas notes that this is the first time that the EU has officially given assurances to the Central Asian and South Caucasus countries that it will commit "whatever political, economic, and financial resources are necessary to the project of forging a direct link to the Caspian Sea." While this primarily concerns gas reserves, it's "also about oil and transport."
In order to reduce reliance on gas supplies from Russia, the EU is pushing for the construction of three new pipelines in the region, which would ultimately bring natural gas from the Caspian Basin and from as far away as Iraq to Europe.
The three pipelines are Nabucco, running from the eastern border of Turkey to Austria; White Stream, running from Georgia under the Black Sea to Romania; and the Interconnector between Turkey and Greece and Italy (ITGY).
Combined, all three pipelines could supply up to 10 percent of the EU's total gas need by 2020, or some 60 billion cubic meters. Russia currently provides the EU with some 150 billion cubic meters annually, and that figure is not expected to rise significantly.
path of Nabucco gas pipeline
The EU will ask participants to work toward an
energy-transit treaty setting out the rules on how energy supplies should be
transported, how much transit countries should charge, and how the fees should
The 27-member bloc will also ask energy producers to set aside specific volumes of oil and gas for its use.
Lobjakas says that "EU officials said before the meeting that they were expecting concrete commitments on the part of the Central Asian countries, especially in terms of how many billion cubic meters of gas annually they would set aside for European consumers."
The EU will press Turkey to agree the rules covering the Nabucco pipeline in a bid to kick-start construction of the project.
In return, the draft summit declaration says the EU should give commitments on the amount of fuel it will buy, to ensure "transparency, competitiveness, long-term predictability, and stable regulatory conditions."
And the EU should offer its partners the technology and investment they need to upgrade their own energy systems.
Lobjakas says everything turns on political issues, namely to what extent the EU can convince the Central Asian and South Caucasus states that they can safely ignore Moscow's stiff resistance to the EU-backed pipeline projects bypassing Russian territory.
"If the EU follows through, if the larger member states follow through, especially if the trans-Caspian pipeline is built, linking the Central Asian countries directly to projects such as Nabucco, then they will have a very real option in the future, a very real choice, to delivering gas only via Russia," he says.
"Now this doesn't mean that Russia will disappear from their radar screens, but these countries will acquire a far more substantial political and economic latitude in their decisions."
Russia has been invited to the Southern Corridor summit as an observer, along with the United States and Ukraine. The summit's agenda fails to include any of the Russian pipeline projects.
Two major regional players are missing -- Qatar and Iran. An EU official told RFE/RL privately before the summit that Qatar, a major gas producer, has not been invited "for the time being," but did not elaborate.
Another official told RFE/RL privately that Iran would be invited to participate "when circumstances permit," an allusion to the country's internationally controversial nuclear program.
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