Nord Stream 2

Nord Stream 2

Russian Gas Risks Polluting Berlin–Washington Relations

03/2021  | Reading time: 8 minutes

With Joe Biden as the new US president, a new chapter in Berlin–Washington relations began after four difficult years during the Trump administration. The challenge from Nord Stream 2, however, can make the reset of transatlantic relations more problematic. In Washington’s view, the project is a threat to Europe’s energy security, and its implementation would be a further step towards Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. On the flip side, German chancellor Angela Merkel supports that the pipeline should be completed. Moreover, the construction of the pipeline also causes disagreements within the German political parties, with possible consequences for a post-Merkel Germany.

Following the election of Joe Biden as the president of the United States, German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her hopes for opening a new chapter in US–German relations while she referred to the presidential election as a celebration of the American democracy. Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas remembered that the US–German relations had gone through their worst crisis since the end of World War II under Trump’s presidency. He also added that this relationship could take a new direction with Biden as president. The president of the CDU’s (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, Christian Democratic Union of Germany) brother party, the CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern, Christian Social Union in Bavaria), Markus Söder, also expressed his hopes that a president like Biden would do his best to rebuild the transatlantic “bridge” and repair the damages the previous US administration inflicted on the relations between the two countries. The result of the election was also welcomed by leading German politicians from all of the main parties, which also voiced their hopes for renewed transatlantic relations.

However, as soon as the initial enthusiasm about the election waned, this new chapter in transatlantic relations had to face its first challenge. Shortly after Biden had taken office, Berlin had to face criticism from Washington over the Nord Stream 2 project since the Americans accused the Germans of a conflict of interest. Nord Stream 2 is an approximately 1,200-km gas pipeline costing about EUR 9.5 billion and connecting Vyborg in Russia with Greifswald in Germany. According to Russian energy company Gazprom, the largest investor of Nord Stream 2, the pipeline, which would transport 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Russia to Germany, is 94% completed. Its construction was first interrupted in 2019, when the Swiss Allseas withdrew its vessels employed in pipe laying in the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm following a US decision to impose sanctions against Russia over security concerns. The construction of the pipeline resumed in December 2020 only to be soon stopped again because a permit from the BSH (Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie, i.e., the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency) expired. The permission to build the gas pipeline was regranted on 15 January 2021, but this does not mean that the construction of the missing 150-km pipeline will be completed anytime soon.

Nord Stream 2 would connect Vyborg in Russia with Greifswald in Germany
Source: DesignRage/Shutterstock

After the Russian politician Aleksej Navalnyj, who had recovered from an attempted killing with a poisonous agent in Germany, had returned to Moscow in mid-January, Russian authorities immediately arrested him. Several countries, among them EU member states and the US, have censured and condemned how Vladimir Putin’s main critic was treated by the authorities. Not only the US but also the European Parliament promised to impose additional sanctions against Russia, and they also suggested an immediate, permanent halt to the Nord Stream 2 project.

Because of the latter issue, however, there was a misalignment between the German government and the US administration. While Washington still considers the project a threat to Europe’s energy security and its implementation a further step towards Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, German chancellor Angela Merkel continues to support that the construction of the pipeline should be completed. The US ambassador to Berlin, Joseph Giordono-Scholz, also claimed in a statement to the German daily Berliner Zeitung that the United States insisted the German government stop constructing the Nord Stream 2 for energy security reasons and called for consultation on the matter. He welcomed the fact that voices urging that the project be called off were growing louder in Germany and other US partners in Europe.

By contrast, according to Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the CDU specialised in foreign policy, “symbolic” measures (i.e., the sanctions urged by the US) will not help achieve anything, but it is an important signal that the Biden administration shows readiness for negotiations. The CDU’s politician thinks that there would be a need for a joint transatlantic strategy which can provide energy security for Eastern Europe, also bearing sustainability in mind. Thus, in his view, there is a need for projects that will make energy supply more secure and affordable throughout Europe even after diversification and changing supply sources. Berlin has also made it clear that it opposes US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 because they are a violation of Germany’s and the European Union’s sovereign interests.

It is still not clear whether the remaining part of the underwater Nord Stream 2 pipeline will ever be concluded
Source: Ksanawo/Shutterstock

Those opposing the completion of Nord Stream 2 for security reasons believe—similarly to the US—that the pipeline, which would double Germany’s gas imports from Russia, would cement the Russian dominance in the German energy market. Moreover, they also dismiss the German political leadership’s view according to which the project would provide Germany with a more secure source of energy. There is also substantial disagreement on the pipeline construction within the German political elite. While the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the Die Linke (The Left) support Merkel’s stance and are in favour of completing the project, the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei, Free Democratic Party) and The Greens staunchly oppose it.

According to The Greens, besides energy security considerations, the German government should also keep in mind its promise made in the Paris Agreement which aims to limit global warming to 1.5℃ but at least to 2℃. In practice, electricity generation using natural gas will certainly be needed in Germany for a few more years to come, but, according to the Greens, it is not as environmentally friendly as the interested lobby claims.

On the other hand, German politicians who support the completion of the project say that the pipeline is just a “bridging technology” that can be used until the supply from renewable resources cannot completely meet the energy demand of European countries. Green politician Claudia Müller dismissed these claims, affirming that the investment in the construction of Nord Stream 2 would only pay off in fifty years and that climate neutrality in 2070 is well beyond the promises made in the Paris Agreement. A project that would be profitable in fifty years cannot be called a “bridging technology” according to The Greens who say that, in order to comply with the Paris Agreement, an immediate halt to Nord Stream 2 would be recommended.

There are many opponents of Nord Stream 2 in Germany public life
Source: AndriiKoval/Shutterstock

Recently, severe criticism has also been directed against the government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a state in northern Germany which would be the end point of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for establishing a public foundation that could take over potentially sanctionable activities from the companies involved in the construction. In the event of sanctions, the so-called Klimaschutz MV, which has climate protection in its name, could purchase and store machines and building materials for companies that would be directly affected by the retaliatory measures. Therefore, the main aim of the foundation is to ensure that the construction of the pipeline do not run into obstacles. The foundation claims its guiding principle is environmental and climate protection; their explanation echoing the CDU’s above reasoning suggests that the pipeline should be understood as a “bridging” solution until sufficient energy from renewable sources, mostly from wind and solar technologies, can be reached. The foundation’s aims also include avoiding the loss of investments and job opportunities that the unfinished Nord Stream 2 would mean for the region.

Sascha Müller-Kraenner, CEO of the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany), considers the foundation a sham organisation whose only purpose is to assure that the pipeline will be completed. She even called Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s prime minister, Manuela Schwesig, a “gas lobbyist” and described the foundation’s decision to call itself a climate and environmental organisation while “having nothing to do” with climate protection as “insolent.” The head-to-head is still ongoing and climate activists continue to condemn the foundation’s operation. More recently, Transparency International has also expressed its concerns about the organisation because, while officially having been set up for climate protection, it apparently directs its energy at securing that the pipeline will be completed without further delays.

The future of the project may not only impact US–German relations but also the coalition behind the new government after this year’s general election
Source: kaiser-v/Shutterstock

In the meantime, additional pressures are coming on the German government as eighteen companies participating in building the pipeline decided to quit the project under the threat of US sanctions. It is now an open question whether the German government will continue to support the project in the future or the US will come to terms with its European ally’s wishes. Surely, the future of transatlantic relations will be determined by the extent to which the Biden administration is willing to make concessions. In mid-February, more voices started saying that Joe Biden would eventually display a willingness to reach an agreement with Germany on the project.

The next months will also be crucial because divisions may deepen between German political forces which are strongly divided on this issue. A solution to this question might also influence the composition of the next German government, since many believe that the CDU/CSU and The Greens are likely to cooperate in a new coalition cabinet. However, the Nord Stream 2 issue might also have repercussions on the prospects of political cooperation between these parties, so it is questionable whether they choose to govern together if the project is eventually realised.


The opening pic is by Aksabir/Shutterstock

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