European gas market faces more tensions after outbreak of conflict in Western Sahara
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Sitting in a comfortable European house, one can sip organic tea in the evening and watch dystopian American politics unfold on television.
Much sadder, of course, if the lights and television went out and the kettle remained cold. This risk is not remote, in part thanks to Europe’s energy geopolitics. By now everyone has heard of a tightening of European gas supplies to the benefit of the Russian group Gazprom and the influence of Moscow.
Less discussed is how conflicts in North Africa are likely to reduce Spain’s winter gas supplies, while potentially adding upward pressure on electricity prices for the rest of the l ‘Europe.
On October 30, Algeria plans to close a gas pipeline carrying Algerian gas to Morocco, Spain and Portugal. This is part of a long, smoldering quarrel between Algeria and Morocco that arguably began with the former’s independence from France in 1962.
Morocco is angry with Algeria for its support for the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara. Morocco insists it has sovereignty over the long contested territory. Relations deteriorated further this summer when Algeria accused Morocco of playing a role in starting several serious forest fires in its territory.
Tensions have reached the European Court of Justice, which this week awarded the Polisario Front a legal victory, ruling that a broad economic treaty between the EU and Morocco could not automatically be extended to Western Sahara.
Spain is the European country most affected by the CJEU ruling. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony. Some members of the Polisario have Spanish passports. And, in recent decades, the Spanish fishing fleet has become dependent on Western Sahara waters (and Moroccan licenses) for up to a third of its catches.
European ties with Morocco extend well beyond fish. There are migratory flows, European investments including automobile manufacturing, sometimes difficult security devices, tourism and the supply of Moroccan vegetables to European tables.
France and Spain have special legal relations with Morocco which go beyond the framework of other EU treaties. Algeria also has many links with Europe, but it is a bit apart. Its struggle in colonial times for independence from France is part of its national identity. Its armed forces buy a lot of material from Russia and China.
And Algeria sells a lot of gas to Italy, Spain and Portugal. Gas to Italy goes directly through an undersea pipeline. Gas to Spain and Portugal passed through two other submarine pipelines. The first, built between 1996 and 1997, passes through Morocco, which uses part of the gas for its own generators. The second, commissioned in 2011, goes directly from Algeria to Spain.
This is where the EU and Spain’s foreign relations become even more problematic, especially in a tight international gas market and with insufficient European energy storage before winter.
On September 29, the day the CJEU’s decision on Western Sahara was announced, Josep Borrell, the EU’s supreme foreign policy chief, issued a joint statement with his Moroccan colleague reaffirming a strategic partnership. They also pledged to “take the necessary measures to ensure the legal framework” of trade relations. This could upset Algeria and harden its resolution in its dispute with Morocco.
Tellingly, the next day, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of Energy landed in Algeria for meetings with their counterparts on, among other things, the imminent 25% extension of the capacity of the direct Algeria-Spain pipeline. . Even with the additional gas, Spain will find it difficult to import gas this winter via its LNG terminals.
Spanish consumers are already enraged by high electricity prices. This prompted Madrid to raid € 3 billion on the profits of Spanish energy companies, like renewable energy star Iberdrola.
With the closure of the gas pipeline, Morocco will have to find ways to do without Algerian gas entirely, although its energy sector has already foreseen this possibility. It has coal-fired power plants that it can use and could turn to other sources of imported fossil fuels for its gas generators.
Europeans would be wrong to think that Algeria and Morocco frame this dispute around economic and technical factors. There are deep feelings about sovereignty, military balance, and the culture at work here. It will not be easy for the EU to navigate such an environment to secure its supplies.