Russian gas giant Gazprom's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Alexei Miller (L) and Chief Executive of French multinational electric utility company Engie Isabelle Kocher attend a signing ceremony for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline agreement, in Paris, on April, 24, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Thirteen EU member states have voiced their support for a proposal to enable the bloc to negotiate with Russia over the existing objections against a deal on a gas pipeline to transfer Russia’s natural gas to Germany, despite Berlin’s opposition.
At an informal debate on Monday, EU energy ministers spoke out against Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline plan to transfer more gas directly from Russia's Baltic coast to Germany.
The pipeline is expected to reroute some Russian gas supplies around Ukraine to the north. Ukraine currently serves as a route for most gas supplies to Europe.
The 28-member bloc is expected to vote on the European Commission's request for a mandate to represent the EU in negotiating the pipeline plan with Russia in the fall.
"We had 13 delegations intervening, with all of them being supportive of the Commission's approach … I am definitely optimistic about getting the mandate, but I know this is just the beginning of the debate,” said Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic after presenting the EU executive's case to member states.
Germany has objected to any role for the commission, arguing that the pipeline plan is purely a commercial project.
The plan highlights the divisions among EU members over conducting business transactions with Russia, which provides a third of the EU's gas needs, despite the current sanctions against Moscow over its alleged role in the Ukrainian crisis.
The economic sanctions against Moscow were originally introduced in March 2014, after the strategic Black Sea peninsula of Crimea rejoined Russia following a referendum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the pipe laying vessel Pioneering Spirit in the Black Sea near Anapa, Russia, on June 23, 2017. (Photo by AP)
Since then, the EU, the US and some other Western countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia over accusations that Moscow has been involved in the deadly crisis in Ukraine, which has so far killed more than 10,000 people. The Kremlin has, however, strongly rejected the accusations.
EU officials say direct talks with Moscow may delay the project past 2019, depriving Russian state gas firm Gazprom of influence in talks over transit fees for Ukraine.
Germany, Austria and France -- which have firms partnering with Gazprom on the pipeline -- refused to take a position against the project.
Italy objected to the project, arguing that it would increase gas prices for customers further down the line.
While Eastern European and Baltic states are concerned that the pipeline could increase the bloc’s reliance on Gazprom, Nordic nations object to the project over security considerations. The pipeline is planned to be laid near their shores under the Baltic Sea, where Russia has bolstered its military presence.
Ukraine's foreign minister said on Monday the draft EU proposal fails to obtain enough guarantees from Russia, warning that the pipeline would have "dangerous consequences" for the bloc.
Meanwhile, the threat of new US sanctions against Russia has exacerbated the tension. The US sanctions would penalize Western firms involved in the project, including Uniper, Wintershall, Shell, OMV and Engie.
Several EU diplomats have warned that the US bans will endanger the European energy security.

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