A hot winter might have “saved Europe,” but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have had a larger impact on energy in Europe than Brussels is willing to let on. Bruxellois technocrats are eyeing the forecasts much more regularly than they would have hoped; the energy crisis has brought about the return of weather-based economics. Having curved inflation, secured liquefied natural gas (albeit at the expense of energy security in the Global South), and avoided a recession, European policymakers have largely avoided bad news on the economic front, but important political implications remain in the aftermath of the ongoing energy crisis.
The European Commission's REPowerEU plan has proposed ending the bloc's reliance on fossil fuels from Russia by 2027. The plan also seeks to increase the share of renewables in energy consumption to 45% by 2030, an increase from the previous target of 40%. Ultimately, the question stands: Can Europe reconcile its ambitious energy transition timeline with a diversification from Russian supplies? And how does the United States fit into the equation?
To answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand why this diversification (in both source and supplier) has taken so long. Long-time skeptics of Energiewende, or the green transition, have blamed this costly delay on the “overprioritization” of green options, like “radical” reduction in consumption, in lieu of continued reliance on “traditional” fossil fuels and “controversial” nuclear energy. But a look back in history suggests that the reluctance to diversify has largely been a consequence of political rather than environmental decisions.
Parallels may be drawn between today and the 1973 energy crisis, when an OPEC oil embargo led to a nation-and-worldwide recession. While US policymakers reacted to the crisis by returning to pre-war American self-sufficiency in energy production, their counterparts in Brussels, either erroneously or deliberately, did not apply the Americans’ lesson learned to their own dependency on Russian energy.
At the time of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union was importing 83% of its natural gas, around 45% of which was coming directly from Russia. The fact that the 2014 invasion of Crimea did not suffice to curb this reliance only further proves that the decision was rooted in a “European political arrogance,” or an overreliance on its “soft power” maintaining that such linkages, having established economic interdependence, really could override the consequences of Russian political aggression.
Mistakes of the past, however, should not impact hope for the possibility of a green and non-Russian transition, because it is possible and comes from an unlikely candidate — Algeria.
Unabashedly isolationist and non-party to the WTO and NATO, the North African state may not be the most obvious alternative to Russia. But Algeria happens to be the largest gas exporter in the world, ranking 10th in reserves of natural gas and 16th in oil. It is therefore not surprising that the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, recently described Algeria as a “reliable partner” in the energy sector.
Having provided around 10% of the EU’s gas imports in 2020-21, Algeria is both a key supplier of fossil fuel-powered energy to Europe and a great potential partner in renewable energy, though so far underutilized. If Europe is willing to invest in the long-term, Algeria can provide more than 3000 hours of annual sunlight and millions of square kilometers of land for solar fields and wind power.
Admitting defeat of its soft power crusade, Europe should have transitioned energy suppliers a long time ago, but it is not too late to bounce back. If economic interdependence really does lead to policy convergence, the EU-Algeria partnership may indeed result in further cooperation on democracy, rule of law, migration, and security issues, marking a win for European soft power. Algeria is just one option proving that the European green transition is still possible, even as Europe finds itself in what Borrell described as a “sensitive juncture.”
Washington policymakers learned from the crisis of 1973 and, not unlike many other policy areas, they diverged from their European counterparts in energy production and, as a result, security. Yet while DC may not have been shaken by the material impacts of the energy shortage in Europe to the same extent as Brussels, it would be naive to deny American stakes in Europe’s energy transition.
The European overreliance on Russian energy has not only affected their own energy security but has also had repercussions on the global order, in which the United States has much at stake. The EU-US relationship has witnessed a consequential shift in priorities, leading to the increased relevance of entities like the EU-US Energy Council. Indeed, in March 2022, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and US President Joe Biden elevated the ministerial framework on transatlantic energy cooperation to the “Presidential level” by setting up the EU-US Task Force on Energy Security. The working group’s primary objective is to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy, “including by diversifying its natural gas supplies in alignment with its climate objectives and reducing its overall demand for natural gas.”
The International Energy Agency has highlighted that the renewable transition necessitates substantial investment from the private sector. This tasks Algeria with creating an attractive business environment to encourage investors. Indeed, Algeria has already begun to implement many relevant regulatory adjustments, including reforms to incentivize foreign ownership of Algeria-based companies.
Not long has passed since Algiers was coined the capital of Third Worldism. While it is unrealistic to expect a solidified energy partnership to sever Algerian-Russian relations and transform Algeria into a poster country for the Washington Consensus, there are undoubtedly potential soft-power gains for both Europe and the United States in the pursuit of an unlikely candidate during an unprecedented transition.