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EU Elections | Part I - Looking Inwards

Part I of a series of specials on the EU Elections, written by the members of the Europe Focus Group

Cyprus and the Great Game of Gas
by Milo Alberto Dainelli

Cyprus has arguably not attracted as much attention from the public when compared to its neighbours in the Middle East. At the dawn of the new millennium, the country was mostly known for seaside tourism and being the go-to destination for Russian oligarchs in need of money laundering or an easy-to-obtain EU citizenship. 

All of this changed in 2011 when the Aphrodite gas field was discovered just inside the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); this, coupled with successive findings, brought the island back onto the main stage of Eastern Mediterranean politics.

The gas reserves would be sufficient for the country to meet its national energy demand (currently almost entirely satisfied by imported oil) and still be able to export a sizable quantity to the European markets. This would be extremely advantageous for Cyprus because it would wean its economy off Russian investments and heavily improve its balance of payments. At the same time, the EU would become less exposed to energy blackmail from Egypt or Russia. However, despite all of these advantages and the designation as a “Project of Common Interest” by the European Commission, no gas from the Cypriot field has been used to produce energy over the last decade.

The reasons for this are mainly geopolitical and lie in the island’s troublesome northern neighbour. The discovery of these untapped gas fields in the Cypriot EEZ came at a time when Turkey was attempting to become a regional gas hub by connecting Europe to Russian and Middle Eastern reserves through pipelines. The country has therefore decided not to recognize Cyprus’s EEZ claim as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (which Turkey never signed), stating that it overlapped with its own claim and the TRNC’s one. To back up this claim, Turkey engaged in gunboat diplomacy, sending the navy to escort its own drill and research ships in the contested waters. The arising geopolitical risk has prevented companies from developing their gas fields.

Turkish claims almost completely envelop the island. This is an issue not only concerning gas extraction but also its distribution, as Turkey will never accept a pipeline running across its claimed EEZ. A solution proposed over the years has been to link the fields through a pipeline to the already existing West Delta Deep Marine Plant in Egypt: this proposal has not, however,

encountered the favour of the Cypriot government, which does not see Egypt as a completely dependable partner and wants the gas to be used primarily to service the nation’s needs. Recently, there have been talks about the Great Sea Interconnector, an underwater power cable that is supposed to link the electric grids of the EU to the Israeli ones: this would allow Cyprus to export energy to the EU and it would be less concerning for Turkish interests with respect to an entire gas pipeline.

However, this still leaves the problem of where to process Cypriot gas. From the recent declarations of Energy Minister Papastanasiou, it appears clear that the Cypriot government is settled on the idea of a floating production facility, although some analysts claim that this would be economically less advantageous compared to processing the gas in Egypt. The plant is expected to be operative by 2026.

A quick look at the balance of powers tells us that this is not a fight that Cyprus can win on its own. The question, at this point, is simple. Will the European Union have the strength to assert itself in the great game of gas, or will it simply bow to another dictator?

Diversity or security challenge? The Russian minorities in the Baltics
by Alessandro Signore and Gaia Grassi

Russian-speakers protest against Latvia's language law in 2018, holding shields with the text "for our children" in russian
Russian-speakers protest against Latvia's language law in 2018
Since independence in 1991, the Baltic countries have begun a process of integration and dialogue with the Russian minorities within their boundaries. In Estonia and Latvia, the percentage of Russian speakers is significantly high (28.8% and 25.6% respectively) compared to their neighbour, Lithuania (6.4%), and also the integration policies differ a lot. Even after the request to meet the Copenhagen criteria for admission to the EU, in both Estonia and Latvia, the number of stateless individuals is huge: 13% and 18% respectively. The two countries adopted the jus sanguinis principle, and the knowledge of the official language is a prerequisite to obtain citizenship and to apply for a large number of jobs. Differently, Lithuania adopted a road of integration in terms of tolerance, bilingualism, and respect for minorities with successful results.  
But in the context of the war in Ukraine, relations with the Russian minorities have resurfaced as a controversial issue in Baltic societies, particularly in Latvia, where the government aims to diminish Russian cultural influence in the country. Additional measures prioritising the Latvian language in public life and education, alongside the removal of Soviet-era symbols, have heightened tensions with the Russian-speaking minority, perceived by some as an assault on their cultural identity.
Focusing on the European Elections, in Estonia, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has been known for its Eurosceptic and nationalist stance, which sometimes includes sentiments perceived as pro-Russian; another party with an ambiguous position is the Estonian Centre Party (EK) which annulled only in 2022 an agreement with United Russia signed in 2004. In Latvia, the Harmony party has historically garnered support from the Russian-speaking minority and has been seen as more sympathetic to Russian interests. In Lithuania, the Lithuanian Russian Union has advocated for the rights of the Russian-speaking minority in the country; however, it hasn't gained significant traction in national elections.
The Baltics hold significant strategic importance for Europe, and the region's stability and security are integral to the overall defence architecture. Its geographic positioning makes it a key area for NATO's eastern defence strategy, particularly given their proximity to Russia's Kaliningrad. The Suwalki gap, a slim strip of land stuck between the exclave and mainland Russia connecting Lithuania and Poland, is the only land access to the rest of NATO for the Baltics. In this context, the 2023 Vilnius summit marked a pivotal moment for NATO, signifying a renewed dedication to defence. It saw the approval of regional deterrence and defence strategies, delineating responsibilities across various domains such as land, air, maritime, cyber, and space for specific allied units.

Estonian PM Kaja Kallas with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy
Estonian PM Kaja Kallas with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy
Especially after the invasion of Ukraine, the level of tension has exponentially increased, along with the espionage fear; indeed, according to reports from Latvian media, the State Security Service of Latvia has recently commenced legal action against a Member of the European Parliament and a resident of the Baltic nation, Tatjana Ždanoka, because of her possible cooperation with Russian Intelligence and Russian Security Agencies. 
Russia has demonstrated to be able to effectively exploit Russian minority populations’ status in former Soviet countries as a pretext for its geopolitical aims. This was evident in Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Ukraine's Crimea and Donbass, and increasingly in recent months in Moldova's Transnistria. In these instances, Russia capitalised on local Russian or Russian-speaking minorities, alleging discrimination or persecution to justify intervention, destabilisation, and even annexation. These actions were often built on a narrative of protecting ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, framing Moscow as their protector.
While the Baltics' NATO membership provides a substantial deterrent against military aggression, the region's strategic significance and the presence of Russian minorities could still invite subtler forms of confrontation. Russia has shown a large range of non-conventional tactics that could pose a threat. The deployment of the "little green men” in Crimea, the support for pro-Russian separatists in Donbass, and the use of "private" militias like Wagner throughout the globe, highlight the Kremlin's capacity to destabilise governments it considers hostile without engaging in direct military confrontation. These hybrid warfare tactics, along with the use of cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, represent sophisticated means through which Russia could seek to destabilise the Baltic states without directly triggering Article 5.
Along these considerations, the possibility for the U.S. to scale back or even withdraw its involvement in NATO is an increasingly realistic scenario. The ideological shift within the Republican Party towards a more isolationist and in some cases even Russia-sympathetic foreign policy stance (with Donald Trump even saying that he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that don't meet their financial obligations), poses a significant risk to the credibility of the deterrent power of the alliance. Future developments in this direction could leave the Baltics in a vulnerable position, highlighting the role of European countries and more importantly of the EU in bolstering the region's defence capabilities. The EU, through mechanisms like enhanced military cooperation can provide a crucial layer of security, mitigating the risks associated with a potential U.S. disengagement.

While a direct military conflict in the Baltics remains unlikely under the current security architecture, the issue of Russian minorities, coupled with the geographical proximity with Russia and isolation from the rest of NATO and the strategic implications, make it the most likely critical point for potential Russo-EU tensions. The Kremlin has demonstrated a consistent ability to craft narratives around the alleged oppression of Russian minorities in the post-Soviet space, utilising these narratives as pretexts for destabilising actions against governments it deems hostile. These factors, combined with the centrality of the confrontation with the West in the Kremlin's propaganda, suggest that tensions in the Baltics could become a source of tensions. European leaders and the EU Commission that will come out from the upcoming elections must remain careful to the vulnerabilities of the region and committed to a defence posture that deters aggression and stabilises the continent, while ensuring that the situation of the russian minority in the Baltic states cannot be utilised as a casus belli for further aggression on the part of Moscow.

Berlin’s transitional issues
by Zoe Ferrari

Following the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, Germany, which up until that point had a flourishing civilian nuclear programme took the most likely unwise decision to abandon nuclear power entirely. What was then an apparently reckless decision for the long-term prospects of German energy security had been dictated in its entirety by the post-Fukushima shift in public sentiment on nuclear power. Before the turn of the millennium and right after the 1998 Federal Elections, as many as 77% of Germans expressed support for the continued exploitation of nuclear as a power source; in the weeks and months after Fukushima, however, the situation had been completely reversed: as many as 75% of Germans were against the country continuing to operate nuclear power plants.

In mid-2011, Germany was operating 17 nuclear reactors, producing approximately 100 TWh/year and accounting for between 15% and 20% of the country’s energy mix. Nuclear was broadly seen as a necessary ingredient of the country’s mix, helping to keep prices low and thereby boosting the competitiveness of German industry, while also ensuring a relative degree of energy independence.

Germany's energy policy ever since has been an unmitigated disaster, by all accounts. Under the premise of reducing the risk of nuclear accidents to the point of eliminating it, and substituting the production of energy through nuclear power with production from renewable sources, the German Federal Government decided to implemented a gradual phase-out of nuclear reactors: eight were decommissioned immediately, while the rest were scheduled for retirement by 2022.

The decline in energy production from nuclear power which began in 2011 ended up, however, accelerating German dependency on fossil fuels, natural gas and coal chief among them. Coal consumption in the production of energy increased in 2011 and remained above 2009 levels until 2017, while natural gas consumption also increased starting in 2010 and has remained above 2009 levels except for the 2014-2016 period.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with Russian President Putin
Former Chancellor Schroeder with Russian President Putin
By and large, these increases in the consumption of energy produced from the exploitation of natural gas were supplied by increasing Russian gas exports, which increased by 50% between 2011 and 2021, to the point where more than half of all German natural gas imports originated from Russia at the onset of the war in Ukraine.

The 2022 Russian escalation of the war against Ukraine, however, changed the picture.

For starters, it meant that Germany could no longer count on Russia as a source of cheap natural gas to fuel its industry, requiring the country to move away from natural gas as a power source, at the same time as the 2020 so-called coal agreement required the country to phase-out all coal-powered energy production by 2038.

Before the war started, Germany was among the main voices for restraint, calling for negotiations between the West and Moscow in the face of mounting evidence of a coming Russian offensive. After Moscow escalated the war in Ukraine, Berlin, despite its much-touted Zeitenwende, was slow to react, to bolster its defence architecture, to invest in its defence industrial base, and, chiefly, to approve of the sale of German-made weapons to Ukraine. 

By and large, Berlin’s reluctance had been fueled by the need to maintain the possibility of opening the natural gas trade with Russia back up. As that option faded, Germany was forced to come to terms with the reality of things: that the pre-Ukraine economic order could not be salvaged, and that change was needed.

Today, Germany’s economy suffers from the short-sighted energy policy decisions of the last decade. At the same time, the renewed push for a green transition is both hampered by the need to expand coal usage as a fallback from the lack of natural gas, and by the strategic risks it poses: currently, China controls the majority of the supply of critical raw materials and parts for the photovoltaic and wind supply chains. Too strong a push on the energy transition may make Germany’s, once again, dependent on a foreign adversarial power. And, with it, the rest of the EU.

The issue of dependence on non-EU states has revealed itself to be the liability everyone knew it was not just by slowing down EU action on Ukraine, but also by ensuring Brussels’ hands were tied when dealing with the restart of the Armenian-Azeri war over the region of Artsakh. Baku had, after all, become increasingly crucial in the EU’s efforts to decouple from Russia and diversify the bloc’s energy supply, resulting in the Union’s inability to act as Azeri forces committed numerous acts of violence clearly classifiable as war crimes as hostilities went on.

Ultimately, energy security is a key part of national and international security. Whether Germany’s transitional issues will again bring Brussels’ security down with Berlin’s, remains to be seen.

Tricolour or white flag? Macron and French Ukraine Scepticism
by Francesca Manca

The past month has witnessed a noticeable shift in Emmanuel Macron's stance on the issue of the war in Ukraine, to the extent that, borrowing the metaphor from monetary economics, it was claimed he transitioned from being a “dove” to a “hawk”.

Macron has declared himself to be “determined to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes” and that he’s seeking to become the leader not only of a European coalition supporting Ukraine but presumably to gain traction on these processes on a global scale. In a recent interview on French national television, President Macron spoke about the importance of supporting Ukraine and the potential consequences of failing to do so. He described the situation in Ukraine as "existential" not only for France but for all of Europe. According to Macron, anyone who advocates for "limits" on aid to Ukraine is essentially choosing defeat. He went on to warn that if Russia were to achieve victory in Ukraine, it would severely damage Europe's credibility and leave the continent without any security.

As mentioned previously, it is worth noting that at the beginning of the conflict in February 2022, the head of state’s position was radically different, as he was one of the European leaders advocating for dialogue with Russia and avoiding its humiliation. The President’s ambition to lead Europe on Ukraine, however, is encountering difficulties in becoming his nation's own, as it encounters hostility on several fronts. The centre-liberal views of Macron are under attack from both sides of the political spectrum. Marine Le Pen, for instance, affirmed that the hypothesis of sending troops to Ukraine, considered a foreseeable option by the head of state, would constitute an unacceptable endangerment of French lives, and her far-right Rassemblement National (RN) abstained on the vote of approval at Assemblée Nationale. On the other hand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon emphasised the inherent risk of escalation between two nuclear powers, leading his party, the radical-left La France Insoumise, to vote against the proposed strategy. Despite the lack of alignment of positions, the parliament approved the government's support for Ukraine, including a bilateral security agreement that was signed by Macron and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky last month.

The domestic scepticism encountered by the President is mainly conveyed by his political opponents. However, it also reflects the popular opinions on the war in Ukraine. Strangely, it seems like the shifting of sentiment has happened in different directions for the French population and its President. Looking at the numbers from recent polling, sympathy towards Ukraine in France is cooling both in terms of positive perception of the invaded country and in terms of actively supporting its arming. Nowadays, roughly half of French citizens are in favour of actively sending military aid to Ukraine, and the option of actively engaging in the fighting is even less popular.

Some points of view suggest that the sharp intervention of Macron originates from the fear of an imbalance of powers at the community level, where by tradition, France holds the role of strategic dominance. Perhaps the ambiguity and hesitation that characterised the presidential conduct until now had caused worries for Poland and especially Germany, which have been expressing deep concerns about a potential Russian victory since the beginning of the war. Such concerns from other European capitals hint at the possibility that the main motivation behind Macron's change of pace on Ukraine is to be found abroad, in concerns for France's standing in Europe more than in domestic political concerns.

The upcoming steps will be of crucial importance on several levels: national, European, and global. The need to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine is now a postulate since the potential ramifications of Putin’s expansionism would have dramatic implications for the stability of the continent, and the world as a whole. In this critical moment, Europe must remain united and resolute in its support for Ukraine, transcending political divides and reaffirming its commitment to peace and security. EU-level unity can only be achieved after doing so at the national level - and France will need to lead the way.


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