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Completing Europe: The North-South Corridor

Twenty-five years after Poland’s Solidarity and other dissident movements brought about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and promised a reunified Europe, the continent’s political map suggests that this vision has been largely fulfilled.  Nations that once lived behind the Wall’s ideological divide have joined the European Union to help build a secure, prosperous region from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic and Black seas. 

But economic and infrastructure maps portray a different picture.  Europe integration remains dangerously incomplete. A glaring problem is in Central Europe, where national networks of railroads, power lines, communications links—and notably oil and gas pipelines—remain largely disconnected from each other and from Western Europe. Nations from Estonia and Poland to the Balkans lack the connections running north-south and east-west essential to making them fully part of a single European market. This is the unhealed legacy of a half-century of Soviet-led development, during which disinterest in such intra-regional connections kept these lands dependent on Moscow. 

{mosads}The Russia-Ukraine crisis of 2014 has dramatized the cost of Central Europe’s stunted network. Many of these countries, dependent on Russia as the only natural gas supplier their pipelines can access, find themselves vulnerable to Moscow’s political pricing of gas and other manipulations. This vulnerability has spotlighted a strategic imperative for Europe: to build, without delay, a North-South Corridor of energy, transportation and telecommunication links from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black seas. 

Such a corridor would diversify Central Europe’s energy supplies by connecting the entire region to the liquefied natural gas terminals being completed on Poland’s northwest coast, and proposed for Croatia. Improved oil and electricity routes, as well as road and rail links, would better connect the Baltic region with those along the Adriatic and Black Seas. Spurs from this backbone would link to Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey, helping to integrate and stabilize Europe’s fragile periphery with the European Union’s core. 

This idea is not new, yet it is more urgent than ever. In 2011, the European Commission declared that a “North-South Energy Corridor” was a priority in the effort to create a single European energy market. But Europe’s weak economy and tight budgets impeded investment and the EU’s commitment to the project faded. 

As we advocate in a new joint Atlantic Council-Central Europe Energy Partners report, Europe’s new leadership must reprioritize the Corridor. Economic and political conditions have improved for infrastructure investment. There is a growing consensus in Europe that coordinated infrastructure projects can provide a needed stimulus to the continent’s faltering economy and a foundation for long-term growth. The North-South Corridor should become the cornerstone of Commission President Juncker’s broad new investment campaign into Europe’s growth. 

The North-South Corridor fits easily within the European Commission’s plan to generate 300 billion Euros of public and private investment to strengthen infrastructure and jump-start a new European competitiveness. The corridor would foster smart, sustainable, and inclusive economic growth, and help drive a reindustrialization of Europe through lower energy prices, faster transportation links, and modern digital infrastructure. The new efficiency in Central European transport and its greater use of natural gas also would help Europe toward its goals of cutting pollution and building a low-carbon economy. 

The changes in the U.S. Congress after the midterm elections could lead to a more active engagement mood on foreign policy in Washington on European issues. That could be directed into US support for this project. Promoting the corridor would show continued US commitment to Europe’s peace and prosperity. The U.S. government should use its influence to help manage and advance the debates over how to implement a complex project, as it did in the development of the Southern Gas Corridor to supply Europe with gas from Middle Eastern and Caspian suppliers. Washington should also liberalize its energy trade and provide extra liquidity to the global markets. 

Finally, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has laid bare Europe’s energy insecurity, and now this issue cannot be ignored. While the Ukraine-Russia gas deal in late October may temporarily ease the risk of a cutoff in the Russian gas supplies on which much of Europe depends, the future is far from certain. It is imperative to diversify Europe’s supplies and link it to new upstream resources in Eurasia via the emerging Southern Gas Corridor as well as the emerging global LNG market. 

The North-South Corridor would strengthen Europe strategically and economically as a partner for the United States and realize the transatlantic vision of a Europe which is united, free, and at peace. 

Jones is chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and the former national security adviser and commandant of the Marine Corps. In 2003-2006, he served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Olechnowicz is president and CEO of Polish energy company Grupa LOTOS S.A., and chairman of the Board of Directors of Central Europe Energy Partners, a Brussels-based non-profit association

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