Energy Charter Treaty drama deepens: the European Commission needs to respect the rules it created, even if it does not like them

Yes, Yamina, it is a Ministerial without Ministers!

In one of her many critical Op Eds about the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) posted on the Brussels media website, Euractiv, Dr Yamina Saheb labelled the Energy Charter Conference (ECC) as a ‘Ministerial without Ministers’. For the most part, very few punters connected to the Energy Charter process tend to take Saheb’s colourful attacks on the Treaty with anything but a pinch of salt.

But on this occasion, Saheb (pictured), who briefly worked for the Charter Secretariat and did have a little exposure to the Conference, is actually spot on.

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During the foundation years of the Charter process, the rule-of-law obsessed EU stood behind the Treaty in support of the West’s energy investments in the former Soviet bloc, and perhaps somewhat cynically, developed it as a means of ‘taming the barbarians in the east’. Participation in ECC meetings tended to be high level back in those bygone days. In more recent times, the level of participation has dropped off noticeably.

This has particularly become the case when it comes to the involvement of the EU and its member countries in the meetings of the ECC and its many working committees. In the last annual meeting of the ECC ministerial, which took place online in December 2020, the EU was represented by one Vanessa Manavi. This was a major downgrade in terms of the level of officials representing the EU at the annual ministerial meetings of the Charter – from Commissioner, to Director General, to Director level, and then to a fresh-faced official with little known standing in the hierarchy.

Manavi, whose original name is Vasiliki, is thought to have worked for some time in administration at the Greek electricity company and appears to have surfaced in Brussels only recently, following a stint with the Greeks at the OECD in Paris. It seems safe to say that Manavi has done well out of her current engagement as the EU’s new focal point to the Energy Charter, a role she has gradually come to fill since 2018. Manavi’s predecessor EU rep to the Energy Charter was another, younger Greek woman, who was conducting an internship at the European Commission at the time, according to multiple sources who know the ECC working committees.

But also a decision making body sans decisions...

Bearing this in mind, Saheb should have dug a little deeper in her efforts to expose the shortcomings of Energy Charter’s ministerial sans ministers. She would likely have revealed to the European public not only an absence of ministers from the Charter’s ministerial, but also the questionable workings of a decision-making body without decisions. A good example of the latter is the ‘extraordinary meeting’ of the Charter’s ministerial which just took place on April 14th, hastily summoned by the European Commission following the EU working party on energy held on March 30th.

The April 14th extraordinary meeting was eventually announced to other ECT member countries just days prior to the event itself. Annual ECC ministerial meetings are normally planned months in advance, according to Conference delegates spoken to on the basis of anonymity. Few of the ECT member countries outside of the EU and its member states were informed of the meeting’s agenda, and it was only learned last minute that the main course on the menu would be the appointment of the Secretary General.

U Rusnak New

Once the meeting opened, it rapidly became apparent that the only decision to be taken at this extraordinary ministerial as far as the EU was concerned was to be the eviction of the incumbent Energy Charter Secretary General, Urban Rusnak (pictured), from the two-horse race for the new Secretary General-ship to begin in January 2022.

The contest for the Energy Charter Secretary General, the top executive job of the organisation, has received widespread media coverage, including some profiling of the two candidates – Luxemburg’s Guy Lentz and Rusnak himself.

It is worth reminding that Rusnak was nominated by several ECT member countries, whilst Lentz, according to leaked nomination papers, was nominated solely by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg itself.

Bring them together, but tell them nothing.

As for the April 14th extraordinary ministerial, it appears that the European Commission decided on behalf of the 27 EU countries that an open contest between the two nominated candidates should not take place. More so, based on what has been learned from frustrated meeting delegates who were not pre-informed on the Commission’s intentions, the Commission wanted the contest to be “dead and buried”.

Looking at this a little deeper, it appears that the Commission intended to bury the process before the gun to start the race was even fired. ECC rules for the recruitment of the Secretary General foresaw a public hearing with the two candidates, Lentz and Rusnak, presenting their visions on how to lead the Charter during the next five years, with Conference members quizzing them in an extensive Q&A. The public hearing was scheduled in the recruitment timetable for April 20th. But Commission officials partaking in the April 14th extraordinary ministerial were hell bent that this would not happen.

My Secretary General is brain-dead, how is yours?

As the meeting unfolded, Manavi and another Commission official made extensive statements discrediting Rusnak, referring to him, amongst other pleasantries, as “intellectually unsound and lacking integrity”. The Commission officials continued to refute Rusnak’s candidature with further opinions, whilst at the same time hailing Lentz as a candidate of ‘high professional standing, intellect and integrity’.

They openly called for the countries that nominated Rusnak to revoke their nominations, consistent with the Commission’s clandestine telephone demarche which targeted those same countries a few weeks earlier. Interestingly, meeting participants reveal anonymously that Luxembourg’s delegate to the event did not say anything of substance in support of Lentz’s nomination, and that the Commission did all the talking.

I smell something more than a little rancid...

Perhaps it was a good thing that the April 14th ministerial took place online, rather than having conference delegates within physical reach of one another.

Emotions started to run high, according to persons present. The atmosphere became very tense, some said. ECT member countries from Central Asia, Turkey and other non-EU states fiercely resisted what rapidly became dubbed as the EU’s ‘confrontational approach’. Some countries brazenly rejected the Commission’s disregard for their nomination of Rusnak, hitting back at the EU with the counterpunch that Lentz only appeared on the Energy Charter radar as a result of the ‘rancid auditing’ of the Energy Charter Secretariat in 2019. The audit took place following a range of astounding allegations made against Rusnak by his former-Deputy, although these were never validated.

Other conference participants not aligned with the EU’s position also questioned Lentz’s credentials as a candidate for the top job. They noted that both Lentz and Claude Turmes, Luxembourg’s greenish energy minister who nominated him for the top job at the Charter, inspired together the public campaign for a collective EU country pull out of the ECT.

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Both Lentz and Turmes (pictured), have since taken a u-turn on the EU withdrawal, distancing themselves from previous positions. Turmes, it must be said, continues to be visible with a range of green-type groups regularly denouncing the ECT. Many other countries in the meeting called for the existing recruitment procedure to be respected and for the public hearing between the two candidates, scheduled for April 20th, to go ahead.

Adrenalin levels continued to run high throughout the meeting, which ran massively into overtime. The Armenian Chairmanship of the event, which presides over the ECC in 2021, called for calm. Despite the EU’s preponderance in the process, the Armenian Chair insisted that the views of all parties, as well as the recruitment procedure, should be respected.

Some countries appealed to the EU that no decision can be taken by the Conference on the basis of a subjective opinion about a candidate predominantly made only by one delegation. A healthy debate between the two candidates should take place on April 20th, as cemented in the rules, seemed to be the view of many.

Arise ye ‘Grey Cardinal’ and reveal yourself to the faithful.

It was at this point of the proceedings that another European Commission official, Erlandas Grigorovic, appeared largely out of the blue. He stated, in a stoic yet highly blunt manner, that “we have the majority (of member countries in the ECT) and we are prepared to stay here as long as it takes to see this through today”.

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This intervention appeared to swing the tide of the highly charged Conference meeting into the EU’s favour, according to well informed sources.

A vote within the Conference endorsing Lentz as the sole candidate for the post of Secretary General was then proposed by the Commission officials, as a means of breaking the impasse, or perhaps as a way of imposing their will on the other conference delegates. Only two hands were raised in favour: that of the EU/Commission and the Delegation from Switzerland, which seems to be annoyed at Rusnak for a host of reasons not clearly understood.

All other countries abstained from voting, whilst a bloc of states maintained their rebellion against the EU Commission’s manoeuvres, trickery and what can be deemed as a blunt disregard for the rules of the Conference. There are 56 member countries in the ECC and the EU itself is also a member. The EU vote is supposed to represent a little less than half of the ECC members, although it is not clear that all 27 EU member states were aware of the Commission’s tricks in the handling of the Secretary General recruitment process.

In the end, as the vote took place online and in a highly disputed atmosphere, it is not yet clear whether the conference will decide to remove Rusnak from the contest, or whether the backbencher revolt will continue. Most ECC stakeholders understand that any decision dressed up by the EU as one made by the Conference to remove Rusnak, against the will of many of the member countries, will cast a giant shadow over Lentz’s own eligibility. This will continue to apply even if he should get the nod for the top job and will worsen relations between countries within the ECC. It will also likely put the negotiations on ECT modernisation under a cloud, a result that will only work in favour of the ECT critics.

Will the real barbarians please stand up?

At any rate, it may be too early to judge as Rusnak is still mentioned as a candidate “to continue to lead the institution from 2022-26” on the Energy Charter website. All of this melodrama seems somewhat strange, if not altogether hypocritical.

The European Commission, as the EU’s top executive body, is widely seen as a force which actively promotes competition, transparency, the rule of law, human rights and democracy. It stands against abusive monopoly power and has not been standoffish in kicking the likes of Gazprom and the tech giants where it hurts. But on this occasion, it has become hell bent on monopolising the contest for the Energy Charter Secretary General with its sole candidate at the expense of any form of competition. It even seems to be engaging in some kind of callous game of rights denial, or prejudgment, with the very person that is Rusnak.

Are we not supposed to be more accustomed to seeing this type of behaviour played out by the ‘barbarians from the east’, for whom the ECT may well have been invented, rather than in civilised and law-abiding Europe?

Yet another star is born in Brussels.

And if you have not had enough of this tall tale, a short post script is worth adding so that a few dots can be joined. It has become known that Grigorovic, deputy-head of unit at DG Energy, very rarely attends Energy Charter meetings these days. In fact, he only tends to join at crucial moments of EU interest in the process. It seems likely that his intervention during the April 14th meeting was worth its weight in gold for the Commission faithful. Apparently, this was his first direct involvement, or intervention, in an Energy Charter meeting since July 2019. On that occasion, even some of his own EU colleagues suggested that ‘a star was born’, when Grigorovic called on the Conference to “conduct an international public audit of the Energy Charter Secretariat”.

More so, some of those present at both the July 2019 and April 14th 2021 meetings described the following: He (Grigorovic) not only called for it, he demanded (in July 2019) that the Secretariat be audited, just like he demanded that the public hearing scheduled with the two Secretary General candidates for April 20th be ditched. Two meetings. Same technology. Same result. No more questions. No discussion. Thank you very much. The Commission got the audit and now it will likely get one candidate for Secretary General. This is real EU, like it or leave it.

All ECC meetings are on the record, by the way, although access to the recordings is not open to the general public or to the media. That’s how these EU institutions work, I am afraid. And I hate to say it, but maybe Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Co were right after all.

And another goodie: it has also been learned that the language used by Grigorovic during his sweeping interventions calling for the Secretariat to be audited in July 2019 was a carbon copy of the recommendations made in the report on the "Misfunctioning of the Energy Charter Secretariat", produced by Rusnak’s former-Deputy, Masami Nakata. Nakata’s recommendations could almost have been a script for his pitch during the meeting. The report was circulated widely online at the time and remains out there. It is seen by many Energy Charter insiders as an attempt to have Rusnak ejected midway through his second term as Secretary General, since he was targeted extensively by Nakata’s fiery allegations.

Or is it two stars?

And a very final post-script to delve into. Nakata’s report, as well as the audit, were also pushed actively in the July 2019 meeting by, of all people, Guy Lentz.

Both Lentz and Grigorovic, it appears, warmly took to the idea of ‘a star is born’ when it come to the July 2019 Energy Charter meeting. Or maybe they just had an axe to grind against ‘old Rusnak’. Lentz not only demanded that the Secretariat be audited whilst he cheer-led the report at the meeting that warm July 2019 summer day, he also got himself on board as one of the Secretariat’s auditors once the probing process commenced.

The audit did not validate any of Nakata’s allegations, all of which remain questionable. Rusnak stayed on as Secretary General, although it is highly possible that the Commission will force through his in-admission as a candidate for another term. All up, it may be worth revising an earlier position that the ‘deep mystery’ of the Energy Charter Treaty needs to be solved by investigative journalists. In light of the current travails of former-No.10 resident, David Cameron, it is more likely to become a case for much higher procedures evaluating the accountability of officials within public institutions.

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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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