In Brussels, old habits die hard: the European Commission and the contest for the Energy Charter Secretary General

A colourful tale of two Europeans (and one from Japan).

Media interest in the Energy Charter has remained high in recent weeks, as a number of outlets in addition to this source have reported on the ‘two-horse race’ for the post of Energy Charter Secretary General. There is much interest, as well as a degree of intrigue, surrounding both candidates vying for the top executive job of the organisation established by the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT). The mandate of the new Secretary General is due to commence on January 1st, 2022. In this sense, it is useful to briefly reacquaint ourselves with the two candidates nominated for the post.

Candidate No.1, incumbent Secretary General, Ambassador Urban Rusnak, was nominated for the post by three countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Albania.

Urban Rusnak Ect

Rather strangely, he did not receive the nomination of his own country, Slovakia. This is rather unusual in diplomatic practice, although it is legal within the context of the rules of the Energy Charter Conference, the ECT’s governing body, as member countries do not necessarily nominate their own nationals as candidates.

Additionally, Rusnak came under scrutiny in 2019 when his deputy, Japanese national Dr Masami Nakata, tabled multiple allegations against him for alleged mismanagement of the Energy Charter Secretariat.

Additionally, as reported by the Brussels media platform, Euractiv, Rusnak has recently challenged the Conference in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) tribunal in Geneva, for ‘denial of his rights and blocking his re-appointment’ for a further three-year term as Secretary General. Rusnak is seen by many stakeholders as the driver of the ECT modernisation process, and last year applied to be reappointed for a further three-year term in order to finalise ongoing efforts to reform the Treaty.

Candidate No.2 is Guy Lentz, Luxembourg's Diplomatic Counsellor and Coordinator for European and International Energy Affairs. There is little public information about this candidate and he is for the most part a seldom known quality to the Energy Charter process.

Guy Lentz Lux

Unlike Rusnak, who has been at the forefront of the ECT for over a decade, Lentz has only started to become visible in the Charter arena in 2019.

In fact, Lentz is deemed to have come to prominence within the Charter during the process of the auditing of the Secretariat in autumn 2019, which followed the allegations made by Japan’s Nakata.

It is known from process insiders that the audit was shrouded in more than its fair share of controversy, since Nakata’s allegations were not only highly questionable, they were never validated. Additionally, Lentz’s candidature has been pushed by Claude Turmes, Luxembourg’s populist energy minister, who has ebulliently led the call for the EU’s collective withdrawal from the ECT.

Then again it should be noted that Lentz, despite his lack of visibility, is a Brussels insider and has been ‘on the books’ as the representative of Luxembourg in the working groups of the Energy Charter for some 15 years.

Back to the future: 2011 and 2021

Few will recall, however, that on March 13th, when both Rusnak and Lentz were announced as the sole candidates for the post of Secretary General, a similar situation arose to the contest for the post which took place back in 2011.

The only difference was that in 2011, in the previous contest, there were three candidates nominated for the top job – all of whom were EU nationals. Fast forward ten years later, to 2021, and we have two candidates, again both being EU nationals. This situation deserves a short explanation, as follows.

By long established tradition, the top job at the Energy Charter Secretariat has always gone to an EU national, usually a high-ranking bureaucrat or diplomat. The EU (as a bloc) contributes the majority share of the organisation’s budget and the EU is, by and large, the Energy Charter’s ‘majority shareholder’.

In the old days, when Russia was both an ECT member and core partner to the process, the post of Deputy-Secretary General was always filled by Russian diplomats. In more recent times, since Russia’s pull out of the ECT, the post of the No.2 at the Secretariat has gone to other important ECT member countries, such as Turkey, and more recently, Japan. It is widely understood within the process that the European Commission, either via its ‘invisible hand’ or through good old bureaucratic preponderance, has played the role of ‘kingpin’, effectively pushing decisions through the process which are favourable to the EU.

It may be the case that when it comes to the Energy Charter process, such established traditions, be they old habits, die hard. When the Commission, or more specifically, DG Energy, set the agenda for the EU Working Party on Energy held on March 30th, the ‘appointment of the Secretary General of the Energy Charter’ was a core topic. Additionally, Rusnak’s legal challenge at the ILO Vs the Conference’s veto of his re-appointment as Secretary General, was also on the agenda. It has since been learned that the Commission also tabled both of these topics for further discussion at an additional, ‘secretive conference’ which it proposed to hold with representatives of the ECT members countries on April 14th, but without the participation of the Secretary General or of the Secretariat.

This is highly unusual practice. The Secretariat normally organises all formal gatherings of the ECT member states, which collectively comprise the Energy Charter Conference

Will the real EU candidate please stand up?

In addition to the Commission working through the institutional processes described above, its ‘invisible hand’ was also in action following the closure of nominations for Secretary General on March 13th, and during the run up to Easter.

The EU’s top executive body was not exactly handing out Easter eggs, however. To be more precise, it has become known through anonymous sources that one senior DG Energy official made several phone calls to the governments of the countries which nominated Rusnak for Secretary General, ‘asking them to revoke their nomination’. The Commission official also appears to have expressed the view that (unlike in 2011) Rusnak is ‘no longer an EU candidate’, but that he was rather an ‘EU citizen’, and that there was only one EU candidate in the contest, that being Luxemburg’s Guy Lentz. The Commission official reportedly ‘expressed surprise’ that such countries decided to nominate Rusnak, despite the fact that such nominations did not contravene the rules of the Conference.

It is understood, with reference to anonymous EU sources, that Rusnak has told DG Energy to stop interfering in the Secretary General selection process, since such actions are in contravention of the rules. The Energy Charter boss distributed an aide memoire to the members of the March 30th EU Working Party on Energy, effectively a stakeholder information note elaborating on his current ILO case against the Conference.

Amongst other things, it is stated in the aide memoire that Rusnak is ready to withdraw his complaint in the ILO tribunal in the event of an amicable settlement with the Conference, and that this was repeatedly communicated to DG Energy.

There is further concern, already held by some stakeholders, that the Commission’s intervention in the selection process for such a top-level public job as the Energy Charter Secretary General, following the closure of nominations, likewise alludes to more than a tinge of conflict of interest. Diplomats from the countries contacted by the Commission official have also expressed dismay, since they merely expressed their right to back their preferred candidate. Both Rusnak and Lentz are EU nationals, after all.

Strange as all this may be, one thing seems certain, this year’s race for the Energy Charter top executive job is likely to be a more ‘colourful’ affair than the last contest in 2011, which itself was not devoid of colour, as Energy Charter old hands will acknowledge. Given that Rusnak challenged the Conference after it blocked his re-appointment last year, it cannot be ruled out that he will duly challenge the Commission’s meddling in the current selection process.

Although there seems to be little ‘love lost’ between Rusnak and DG Energy, in EU Brussels’ ‘big village’, old habits die hard.

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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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