Last Wednesday is early in the morning and work at the port of Sassnitz-Mukran on the island of Rügen on the German Baltic coast continues. Dark blue pipes are loaded into the Oslap Sheremeta, a 90-meter-long cargo ship flying the Russian flag behind its bridge. It belongs to Gazprom, the Russian state energy company.
A ship tracking website shows that Russian ships are waiting for the pipes about 90 kilometers to the east, south of the Danish island of Bornholm, where they must be installed by the Fortune, a pipe-laying vessel. They will install the final section of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The first of the two planned pipes is already finished. The second will end when the weather is a little calmer. After years of planning and construction, the pipeline can supply Europe with about 55 billion cubic meters of gas each year.
Along with the Fehmarn Belt Tunnel, a train and wagon tunnel that is now being built between Germany and Denmark, Nord Stream 2 is the largest and most controversial construction project in the Baltic Sea region. The companies involved have invested billions in the pipeline. But the price the German government will have to pay has the potential to be much higher. Few German infrastructure projects in recent decades have been so costly in terms of political capital.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes her first visit to U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington since taking office. The dispute over Nord Stream 2 is a major hurdle that needs to be removed to firmly restore rapprochement between the two countries after the icy diplomatic relations during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Like his predecessor, Biden has a strong aversion to the project, because it is connects Berlin with Moscow and because Americans would like to sell their own gas. Unlike Trump, however, the current president wants to have a strong relationship with Germany. He needs the Germans to support his tough policy against China. This prompted Biden to lift sanctions against Nord Stream 2’s operating company in May, at least for now.
Still, Merkel knows the issue is loading the relationship. “Nord Stream 2 is a disruptive factor,” says a German diplomat. He says Berlin needs to accommodate Washington to show that it is serious to have good relations.
But what kind of concession could it bring to the table? Washington and Berlin are negotiating under high pressure. Jan Hecker, Merkel’s foreign policy adviser, traveled to the United States in mid-June to try to find a solution. Talks between Merkel’s office and the White House also took place last week.
One solution could be to offer Ukraine compensation for its loss of importance as a transit country for Russian gas. Among other things, Berlin is discussing a possible partnership with the Kiev government on hydrogen production. And there is talk that Germany is committed to investing billions in upgrading the Ukrainian gas network, which is in a state of disrepair.
Concessions like this could help turn off tension before Merkel meets with Biden at the White House. But part of the goodwill that the new U.S. government is extending to Germany has already been exhausted by the chancellor’s insistence on the controversial pipeline.
It is unclear why he has joined the project despite criticism from his own party and German partners in Washington, especially given that there are doubts about whether Nord Stream 2 is even crucial to German gas supply. There is also strong resistance from the European Union.
The pipeline, which allows Russia to evade Ukraine as a transit country, has sparked protests, especially in Eastern Europe. After the annexation of Crimea and the Russian war in eastern Ukraine, the Poles, the Baltic states and the Kiev government saw little justification for a pipeline that would make the EU more dependent on Moscow and Ukraine. more susceptible to Russian blackmail. As a result, Merkel’s policies toward Russia have lost credibility.
The chancellor has also encountered resistance within her own party. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German parliament and a member of the center-left Christian Democratic Union (CDU), called for a halt to the construction of Nord Stream 2 after the poisoning of the politician the Russian opposition Alexei Navalny.
The pipeline has even been controversial for a long time in Merkel’s chancellery. Merkel’s former security adviser Christoph Heusgen, who until recently was Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, is also considered an opponent of the project.
The chancellor has not provided any compelling reason for her charge. He stressed that Nord Stream 2 is a private sector project, although it is an absurd claim. Nothing is as political in Russia as the gas industry, whose revenues run Putin’s entire system. It could be said that it is a confluence of factors that has led Merkel to move forward in the pipeline.
An important factor is likely in a national and not a foreign calculation. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), a partner in Merkel’s long-standing coalition, has been in favor of channeling.
The Chancellor provides no compelling reason for her positions.
People close to the chancellor say that in internal meetings, Merkel had repeatedly pointed out that former German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel was using everything in his power to boost Nord Stream. When Brussels reviewed whether Nord Stream 2 is allowed under European law, Merkel had indicated she would accept the result.
Gabriel, on the other hand, had put strong pressure on the European Commission not to stop the project.
The reasons for supporting the project differ greatly within the SPD. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, heads the shareholders’ committee of the controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline company. Meanwhile, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig is pushing for policy based on local economic concerns, as the gas pipeline terminal in Germany, in the city of Lubmin, in her state.
SPD members do not share the view that the chancellor was pressured by her coalition partners to support the project to support the project. They dismiss this as a funny tale coming out of the Chancellery. They say with Nord Stream, for once, there was full agreement within the coalition government – that the two partners, the Conservatives and the SPD, wanted the new pipeline.
Part of this is because the project goes beyond the economy: it’s also about foreign policy. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the SPD sees the pipeline as a means to keep in touch with Russia. He argues that a “burned bridge strategy” is not only incorrect, but also dangerous, and that it would push Russia to close economic and military cooperation with China. He believes this would go against the interests of Germany, Europe and the US
Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz likes to point out that all the countries involved in the Nord Stream dispute stubbornly represent their national interests: the Poles, the Baltic States and, of course, the US. He says Washington is accusing Germany of supporting the Putin regime with a billion in gas purchases, even though it buys huge amounts of crude oil and oil from Russia. Why should Germans be denied what others are allowed to do?
The negative sentiment caused by the construction of the pipeline could diminish Germany’s influence in Europe.
However, the cost-benefit analysis of Germany may ultimately be negative. The German government has not made friends in Brussels with its behavior. “Many in the EU are angry,” says Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister.
The negative sentiment caused by the construction of the pipeline could diminish Germany’s influence in Europe. Merkel recently came across this at the EU summit in late June. Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, he surprised other countries with the suggestion to hold a meeting at the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The push failed, however, when Poland and the Baltic countries in particular rejected it. “Germany,” says an EU diplomat, “is now seen as close to Russia because of Nord Stream 2.”
This is no surprise to Reinhard Bütikofer, the EU’s Green Party policy specialist. “Germany cannot effectively lead the EU if it pursues interests contrary to those of its neighbors and allies,” he says. But he argues that Berlin blatantly ignored this principle in the case of Nord Stream 2. “One could almost say that the German government is pursuing a first German policy here,” he says.
Now it is almost certain that the pipe will be finished. The open question now is how long will it continue to operate once it goes online. The Green Party, which will potentially be part of the next government after this fall’s federal election, categorically rejects Nord Stream 2.
And some in Merkel’s CDU hope they can boycott the project after the election. Roderich Kieswetter, a foreign policy expert with the Christian Democrat parliamentary group, wrote in a “pamphlet on Russian issues” intended to serve as discussion points for the federal parliamentary election campaign that “Nord Stream 2 is primarily a geopolitical project with which Russia intends, above all, to eliminate Ukraine from gas transit to Europe. ” He argues that the pipeline opens up the option in Moscow, “to increase political and military pressure on Ukraine without jeopardizing its gas business with Western Europe.”
Even if it takes essentially the same stance as Merkel, the CDU party leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, it has left the door open. During a recent debate with the other two chancellor candidates, Laschet said there were rules that had been agreed with Putin and that if the Russian leader used Nord Stream 2 against Ukraine, the project could be stopped at any time, even all if completed.
After all, he said, the commercial base of the pipeline would no longer exist. “It’s that simple.”