Russia and the European Union are nearing an agreement that would obligate the parties to provide more advance notice in the event of likely disruptions to gas supplies.
The agreement to enhance the so-called “early warning system” is expected to be signed ahead of Wednesday’s EU-Russia summit in Stockholm, according to diplomats.
It comes as fears are growing among Brussels policymakers that the EU could face yet another gas crisis this winter – its third in as many years – as a result of political turmoil in Ukraine.
The country serves as the main conduit for the EU’s imports of Russian gas, which account for about a quarter of the bloc’s total consumption.
The recession has ratcheted up the pressure on Ukraine’s cash-strapped government to pay its monthly gas bill to Russia. With presidential elections looming in January, there are concerns that the Ukrainian government will back-pedal on unpopular domestic reforms it promised the International Monetary Fund in exchange for billions of dollars in loans.
One Commission official described the current situation as “awful.” An EU group of gas experts is to meet on Wednesday to assess the bloc’s preparedness for another crisis.
Vladimir Chizov, Russia’s ambassador to Brussels, declined to comment on the likelihood of another gas crisis – except to remind journalists on Friday that the Ukrainian election would be taking place in the winter.
“The idea of early warning, of course, is to try to prevent any disruptions, and early information helps,” Mr Chizov said.
Advance notice could allow the EU to dispatch technicians to monitor gas flows, as it did during the last crisis. It would also have more time to arrange financial aid, or to reverse flows of gas pipelines, tap underground storage and make other arrangements to protect vulnerable member states.
The Commission was caught blind in previous disruptions, and then scrambled to understand the contours of the problem. It proposed enhancements to the warning system in the wake of last year’s crisis, which dragged on for more than two weeks and left thousands of Europeans without heat.
The new agreement clarifies under what conditions parties should be notified of a possible supply disruption – be it technical or political. It also calls for consultations, which could include third parties, namely Ukraine. Although gas is the main focus, it would also cover oil and electricity.
Mr Chizov said the deal also called for the EU to supply more information to Russia about its energy policies, such as plans to deregulate the electricity grid, so that it could better understand their implications. “It’s not just another red phone connecting Moscow and Brussels,” he said of the warning system. “It’s a network of communications.”