Brussels calling: “deep mystery” of the Energy Charter Treaty needs to be solved by investigative journalists

A new “low hanging fruit” (for the Brussels media) is born.

The Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), the world’s one and only comprehensive trade and investment agreement covering the energy sector, has in recent times rather mysteriously become the “low hanging fruit” for a bevy of fiery media critics.

Widely seen as a key instrument and bedrock of European energy security, the ECT is now the target of a media pogrom lambasting it as an obstacle to European efforts against climate change, a “secret pact” nurtured by the interests of “big oil”, a fossil fuels club with links to the Kremlin, and a “failed institution overall”.

In Brussels and select European media, the onslaught against the ECT is now waged on an almost daily basis. During the week of February 28 to March 6 this year, select media trackers recorded 235 negative commentaries about the ECT and just 11 positive (including social media). Whilst positive ECT appraisals tend to come from established energy experts, the negative press far outweighs the positive.

The feistiest critics tend to be NGOs and activist campaigners of one form or another. Such groups appear to be well-funded and well organised, and are often linked to an environmental and, more specifically, climate agenda. Other critics, often no less feisty, are former-employees of the Energy Charter Secretariat (ECS), the technical-diplomatic body providing support to the Energy Charter Conference. The latter is an international organisation, serving as the governing body of the ECT itself and is comprised of representatives of the Treaty’s 56 member countries.

NGOs and dirty secrets.

The campaign of discrediting the ECT began in 2018, when the NGOs Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Transnational Institute (TNI) published an in-depth report called One Treaty to Rule them All (www.energy-charter-treaty-dirt...).

As the title suggests, the report was spun in a headline grabbing manner. It should be admitted, the report did contain some useful insights: however, it was full of misinformation and contained multiple subjective opinions which failed to grasp the complexity of the ECT, the institutions it created and the history of the Energy Charter process.

Pia Eberhardt

The report was authored by Pia Eberhardt (pictured left) and several other young researchers, none of whom are known to have had any prior involvement with the Charter process - in fact, most of the authors were barely in their teens when the Treaty was being developed.

The core message of these young activists was that the ECT is a powerful tool in the hands of oil, gas and coal companies intending to discourage governments from transitioning to clean energy. Most formal stakeholders connected to the ECT understood that such claims were hardly in line with reality, whilst the oil companies were at the time frequently targeted by climate activists in Western countries. The impact of the report was therefore questionable. That said, it did arouse the attention of the Energy Charter Secretariat.

Defections and the domino effect.

Then, largely out of the blue, Sarah Keay Bright, an ECS official who had just left the Secretariat, commenced a highly visible campaign of public criticism of the Treaty. Although a number of Ms. Bright's messages were in tune with the Eberhardt report, her rather short articles tended to be more refined and were quite sound intellectually. However, she called for the ECT members to either “reform (the Treaty) now or ditch it entirely”.

She also called for an overhaul of ECT governing bodies. Her articles were occasionally co-authored by another former Secretariat official, the Swiss energy expert, Steiven Defilla, who had left the organisation somewhat earlier. Then again, Ms. Bright, unlike Eberhardt et al, was an ECT “insider”. She knew the process and had good understanding of the Treaty. However, given that she had only recently left the Secretariat, many saw her chosen path to be akin to someone “defecting from the government to the opposition.”

The reasons for this defection were difficult to understand to Energy Charter Conference stakeholders and to her former-colleagues.

She apparently held few grudges against her former-colleagues or the Secretariat in general. She would have enjoyed good salary and work conditions, travelling widely on behalf of the Secretariat to far-away lands such as Argentina and Southern Africa in order to promote the ECT. Voices from inside the Energy Charter process seem to suggest that she may have left the organisation in order to follow her husband back to the UK, after his appointment at the British embassy in Brussels had run its course. Or so the story goes.

Other defectors soon followed in her footsteps and were far more scathing in their criticism, as the drama heightened. ECS Assistant-Secretary General, Masami Nakata, as well as Bright’s successor at the Secretariat Energy Efficiency Unit, Yamina Saheb, would also leave the Secretariat, although some months later, by mid-2019.

Almost overnight, these two women became the ECT’s most vocal critics. Nakata, a Japanese national, joined ECS in early 2017 and is deemed to have brought Saheb into the organisation in autumn 2018, according to reports by Energy Charter process insiders.

Kyoto-spring more appealing than Brussels summer.

People who knew her have said that Nakata was never quite comfortable with her move to Brussels, despite an excellent remuneration package commensurate to that of senior international civil service. The fact that Japan is the largest single country contributor to the ECS budget, and that she commenced working at the Secretariat just after the Energy Charter Tokyo Conference in November 2016, may have played a role in her appointment.

By May 2019, if not before, it all appeared to have become too much for Nakata. The fact that her post was advertised as vacant on the ECS website was even reported in the Brussels media. The newly arrived Saheb, rumour has it, became entangled in a turbulent relationship with just about the entire Secretariat in what became the “worst kept” secret of the Energy Charter process. Algerian-born Saheb left the Secretariat, in difficult circumstances, in June 2019, less than one year after her arrival. In fact, Investigate Europe journalist, Juliet Ferguson, described Saheb’s departure as having taken place “under a shadow” in an article published in March of this year.

Then, another bombshell. Nakata, it became clear, was not just unhappy, she was furious and reportedly appeared to have been plotting. An unidentified source allegedly “leaked” Nakata’s clandestine and highly scathing report on the “misfunctioning of the Energy Charter Secretariat”, which appeared in the Brussels media in the first week of June 2019. The report was published on the website of the Brussels media outlet, Euractiv, and its 200+ pages were largely comprised of multiple allegations of wrongdoing within the Secretariat. The contents of the report were personalised and highly critical of numerous individuals employed at the Secretariat, with multiple allegations of “kleptocracy”, conflict of interest and abuse of human resource practices on a wide scale.

In reality, it is highly doubtful that the report was leaked, as such, or even whether the document published by Euractiv could even be referred to as a report. In Brussels such works are often referred to as a “non-paper”. Since the report was Nakata’s personal document signed off by her alone, and was not an official document of the Secretariat or the Energy Charter Conference, there was in this case nothing to leak. That said, it should be mentioned that Nakata was still engaged in her capacity as the official directly in charge of human resources at the Secretariat. She was also bound by the Secretariat’s ethical code and staff manual when the report appeared in the media.

Frederic the Great remembers Alexander Nevsky.

Frederic Simon, the journalist who “revealed” the report in the Euractiv article, also made an explicit effort to present Nakata as a “whistle-blower”, whilst portraying Secretary General Urban Rusnak of the Secretariat in a somewhat derogatory light. The article included an image of Rusnak shaking hands with the former-Energy Minister of Russia, Alexander Novak, during a meeting between the two men which took place years earlier. Simon also attempted to link Rusnak with the ongoing ECT litigation involving the Russian-backed gas pipeline company, Nord Stream II, and the EU. Neither of these topics bore any relevance to the content of Nakata’s report, but Simon, for reasons unstated, chose to include them anyway.

Claude Turmes

Nakata’s report, written in excellent English, also made explicit recommendations to conduct an “international public audit” of the Energy Charter Secretariat.

It has become known that the process of auditing the Secretariat was subsequently pushed for by representatives of a small number of European ECT member countries and by the European Commission, who were all reportedly “shocked” by the findings of the report.

In particular, the recently appointed Energy Minister of Luxembourg, Claude Turmes (pictured right), pushed hard for the Secretariat to be audited, whilst hailing the bravery of “whistleblower” Nakata in the EU’s formal energy meetings in September 2019.

The audit was carried out in October 2019 and while it resulted in some recommendations, it has become known that no wrong doing was discovered, nor was any misfunctioning on the part of the Secretariat found, despite Nakata’s astounding allegations.

America must leave Vietnam: the sequel.

Shortly afterwards, the NGOs and activists once again stepped up their campaign. Their ranks were now bolstered not only by Bright, but also Saheb and Nakata. In fact, Saheb sat side-by-side with Pia Eberhard and Minister Turmes in an “open debate about the ECT” which the NGOs organised at the Brussels Press Club in September 2019. The entire group now seemingly joined hands to call on European countries to pull out of the Treaty. It was like the hippies calling on America to leave Vietnam during the 1960s, instead that this time "Vietnam was the ECT and America was the EU member states," said one person who was present at the event.

Nakata was a silent participant in the meeting, sitting quietly next to former Secretariat Head of Administration and Finance, Denis Westerhof, who also joined the meeting. Westerhof, a long-term staff member of the Secretariat, left ECS at the end of 2016 and reportedly sued the organisation for a pretty penny following his departure. It may well be the case that he was not the only former-Secretariat employee to take this course of action against the Secretariat.

My reforms will lead us to greatness.

By the end of the year, the NGOs were not only calling on the EU countries to leave the Treaty, they also began targeting the Treaty’s expansion to new countries, which the Energy Charter Conference and the EU had for many years strongly supported. They also tried to derail the ECT Modernisation process.

ECT Modernisation was something started by ECS Secretary General Rusnak early in his tenure, when it became clear to him that the Treaty needed to be reformed in order to effectively embrace new global challenges. These included the rising power of energy producing countries, the need to tackle energy poverty and the need to make the ECT more compatible with international efforts to combat climate change.

Rusnak championed Modernisation throughout his tenure and continues to do so to this day. He pushed through the so-called Modernisation Phase I to the extent that in May 2015 the Energy Charter Conference endorsed a major new political declaration, the International Energy Charter, at a landmark conference in The Hague, the Netherlands.

This event attracted many newcomer countries to the Energy Charter process and the number of ECT (Conference) Observer countries grew dramatically. Investment became the Treaty’s buzz word, and the Energy Charter Conference was starting to be seen by many as a high level “investment club”.

Ect French

But why reform when you can leave?

Modernisation Phase II, involving reform of the Treaty itself, was ready to begin in early 2020, following the full endorsement of its commencement by the EU, Japan and all of the ECT’s member countries. Taking into account the complexity of the process of reforming the ECT, however, and noting the old logic that the work of a reformer is always challenging, the NGOs struck again. They were readily joined by the Secretariat defectors.

Saheb, in particular, was proving to be extremely active, inspiring regular short articles which bullied the ECT in the media, calling on European countries to pull out and proclaiming in one of her regular Op Eds in Euractiv that “modernisation has failed,” By this stage there were enough looney-tunes in the Brussels media for a Broadway satire, with Euractiv replacing the Cold War era dissident radio station, Voice of America, with the “Voice of Yamina.”

Nakata continued to pitch her now not so clandestine report to anyone who would give her an audience, although this was starting to become “an oldie but (not so much a) goodie.” Japana’s delegation to the ECT distanced itself from the report, although refused to condemn it outright. Perhaps they remembered the case of Mikie Kiyoi, a Japanese official at the IEA in Paris who became known for her witty public criticisms and ended up leaving the Agency somewhat early.

This was back in the 1990s and Kiyoi appeared to become popular within certain peer groups following articles such as Dear English Speakers Please Drop the Dialects, which appeared in the International Herald Tribune.

Additionally, as the ECT’s largest single country budget contributor, it cannot be ruled out that Japan may still have its eyes on the Secretariat’s No.2 position for one of its nationals, an understandable position. In this event it would be understandable for the country’s diplomats to distance themselves from Nakata and her report to the fullest degree possible. Additionally, the NGOs were often critical of Tokyo in their media narratives, claiming that Japan is satisfied with the ECT in its current form and does not necessarily see the need for the Treaty to be Modernised.

And you will expand no more.

The NGOs were by this stage joined by a seeming plethora of grass roots organisations with no connection to energy, all calling for European countries to not only withdraw, but for countries in the “global south” (particularly in Africa) not to join. The information campaign by the Treaty’s tormentors were now also benefiting from a range of leaked documents, apparently passed on to them from inside the Secretariat. It may well be the case that they thought that Conference decisions on ECT Modernisation and expansion could be decided at ‘the level of the media.

Indeed, it is widely rumoured that some Energy Charter Conference Delegations referred to “civil society” groups and the barrage of media scrutiny, including the opinion pieces regularly churned out by Saheb in Euractiv and other outlets such as Investigate Europe. There was even a German TV channel running a story on the ECT in line with NGO messages about the Treaty. With this in mind, the Conference placed restrictions on ECT expansion at the end of 2019 and pushed the Secretariat to conduct a re-assessment exercise during 2020. With ECT expansion largely stopped in its tracks, Eberhard, Bright, Saheb, Nakata, Westerhof, Turmes and Co. may have celebrated. A small mountain appeared to have been conquered. But they are also likely to have missed the fact that governments in African countries continue to express interest in the Treaty and the Energy Charter process more broadly. Negotiations on ECT modernisation proceeded throughout 2020 and continue at present.

Step aside Tim, I’m going to Paris.

While the nature of "the beast” that Brussels has become has ensured that the city’s European affairs are covered by a small army of often excellent press corps members, the need for an investigative journalist to unravel the “deep mystery of the Energy Charter” has never been greater.

Why has it become the new centre of attention for a hornet's-nest of NGOs, former-Secretariat staff and activist outfits, many of whom have little to do with energy let alone have any real understanding of the complexities of the ECT and affiliated institutions? Why did Timothy Knickerbocker, a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and lecturer in religious studies from Central College, Iowa (USA), write about the failings of the ECT in a similar manner to Bright, Saheb and Co.?

And why is hardly anyone in the Brussels media talking positively about the Treaty, its potential to work as part of a landscape of European policy instruments and measures intended to take us to the “post-Paris” energy world?

A small glance at the statistics already tells us that most of the cases where the ECT’s investment protection clauses have been invoked were instigated by investors who reached deep into their pockets to develop renewable energy projects. So why all the fuss about the ECT becoming a fossil fuels club and why the massive undertaking to misinform the public?

These questions form just the tip of the iceberg of what has the potential to become “the mother of all investigations” as far as a journalist with a nose for a story on energy and climate should be concerned. Additionally, the focus of the investigation should be both on the politics of the debate (such as fossil fuels Vs climate change), as well as the people creating the narrative. A number of the key protagonists have already been referred to above.

Why are the NGOs and former-Secretariat officials spreading what appears to be a “misinformation smokescreen” about the ECT? Who profits from the narrative being created? What motivations lie behind the faces and stories? Furthermore, why have the NGOs been targeting ECT expansion into countries in Africa and Asia, when their governments cry out for assistance with foreign investment?

The Eagles of Luxembourg: you can check out any time, but you can never leave…

And why is Luxembourg, the European Grand Duchy with little prior dealings with the Energy Charter process, becoming so heavily involved?

On what basis has the country’s energy minister become the “champion” of former ECS staff calling on the EU exodus from the Treaty? Would such a move not be seen as undermining EU solidarity in the all-important sphere of energy, as was hotly debated in the EU Council when Italy pulled ranks and announced its withdrawal from the ECT a few years ago

Perhaps Luxembourg’s energy minister has forgotten, or overlooked, the fact that the former-and-late Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubbers, is considered as the Treaty’s founding father, while the Netherlands remains the ECT's custodian state within the EU. Even more intriguing, why has Claude Turmes now backtracked on his earlier frequent statements pushing for ECT withdrawal, and is now calling on “re-doubling efforts to reform” the Treaty, as reported in Euractiv in February?

Yet this short article has hardly began to answer these and many other poignant questions which need to be asked if we are to understand why anti-ECT activists such as Yamina Saheb now tend to receive more visibility in media blogs such as Investigate Europe than some of the world’s leading authorities on energy. Saheb, together with Nakata, even starred in a recent German TV show about the ECT, where “an angry” Secretary General Rusnak merely played second fiddle. Interesting to note the rising popularity of these two women in the German media.

Seymore Hersh, where are you when we need you?

Additionally, as strange as it may seem, the bond between Saheb, Nakata and the NGOs has become somewhat reminiscent, to put it one way, of the Blair-Bush “special relationship” in the lead up to the 2003 Gulf War: “George, I am with you no matter what.”

It is as if the Secretariat or the Energy Charter Conference no longer exists, as there is only one voice in town when it comes to the ECT: the “Voice of Yamina.”

But, of course, in Brussels there is no talk of journalists or NGOs masquerading as lobbyists, and vice versa. In Brussels, everything is transparent and what you see is what you get. We, the “European civil society” are the good guys, after all, and America eventually pulled out of Vietnam.

Seymour Hersh: Iran, Iraq, WMD, Brussels is calling...


Main image: Plenary Session of the Energy Charter Conference, The Hague, May 20th, 2015.

Image (Pia Eberhardt): via YouTube.

Image (Claude Turmes): EU2017EE Estonian Presidency



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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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