The announcement was made during a trip to Baku by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who signed a memorandum of understanding to this effect with the Azerbaijani leader, Ilham Aliev. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic that is strengthening its ties with the West and Turkey while sparing Russia.
The urgency of diversifying Europe’s energy supplies is all the more felt in Brussels as Moscow has reduced the flow of gas in recent weeks, just when European countries have to fill their reserves before winter.
The EU is currently importing 8.1 billion cubic meters of natural gas via the Southern Gas Corridor, a series of gas pipelines that start in Azerbaijan and go through Georgia and Turkey to Europe.
With the deal announced on Monday, “we want to expand its capacity to 20 billion cubic meters a year within a few years,” von der Leyen said in a joint press statement with Mr Aliyev, with a intermediate objective of 12 billion cubic meters by 2023.
“This will help offset cuts in Russian gas supplies and contribute significantly to Europe’s security of supply,” she added.
“Even before the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Russian gas supplies to Europe had ceased to be reliable. The European Union therefore decided to (…) turn to suppliers more reliable and trustworthy,” said Ms von der Leyen. “Azerbaijan is one of them.”
For his part, Mr Aliev considered that the agreement announced on Monday represented a “road map for the future”.
He stressed that the exploitation of new fields would make it possible to “increase the production of natural gas in the coming years”.
– All-round diversification –
Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia at the end of February, the EU has been working hard to increase its imports from sources other than Russia, such as the United States, Qatar, Norway, Algeria and , therefore, Azerbaijan, an authoritarian country in the Caucasus.
But this diversification will take time and European countries will remain dependent in the short term – to varying degrees – on their imports of Russian gas, which amounted to 155 billion cubic meters last year, i.e. nearly 40% of their needs.
Therefore, the EU, which introduced tough economic sanctions against Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine, took a cautious approach to the energy sector.
While EU leaders in May approved a halt to most Russian oil imports by the end of the year, they have carefully avoided taking any action that could thwart their imports of Russian gas.
Despite everything, Moscow has already started to turn off the tap and the Europeans fear a total disruption of deliveries in reaction to the sanctions.
The Nord Stream gas pipeline, which supplies Germany and other countries from Russia, is currently shut down for maintenance and European customers fear that Moscow is citing a technical reason for not reopening the valves.
Even before this temporary shutdown of Nord Stream, Russia had sharply reduced deliveries in recent weeks citing the absence of a German Siemens turbine sent to Canada for repair and presented as essential to the proper functioning of the gas pipeline.
Canada announced last week that it would send the turbine back to Germany, with Siemens set to take care of returning it to Russia.
Gas giant Gazprom said it had no guarantee on the return of the equipment. But Russian media reported on Monday that the turbine was expected in Russia next week.