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Stopping West African piracy is vital for Europe’s energy security

Hell and high water: a German anti-piracy ship returns from an African tour. Ingo Wagner/EPA

The Crimea crisis has focused our attention on the vexed question of Europe’s energy supplies. To a great extent Europe depends on Russia for its oil and gas, which gives Vladimir Putin disproportionate political leverage. One of the biggest possible alternative suppliers is the Gulf of Guinea, which is thought to have vast untapped reserves – but which is also a world epicentre of maritime crime.

Alongside piracy and armed robbery at sea, seaborne crimes such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, oil bunkering, trafficking, and the dumping of toxic waste all disrupt sea trade lanes, affect the sustainable exploitation of natural resources, and degrade the wellbeing of local populations. At the same time, there are signs that real political action might soon reshape this fraught region.

On March 17 2014, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union officially adopted the EU Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea. That document shows just how significant African maritime security is at the international level – not least how it connects foreign policy challenges across apparently disparate regions and issues. The EU’s maritime strategy is tightly focused on the gulf precisely because of the region’s crucial role in European energy security. Put simply, if maritime crime isn’t kept in check it will wreak havoc with severe ecomonic consequences.

The Summit of Gulf of Guinea Heads of State in Yaoundé in June 2013, adopted a “Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa” which, although non-binding for now, urges states:

“…to declare their exclusive economic zones and enforce their own laws, including on fishing, piracy and armed robbery at sea, environmental protection, waste dumping and mineral resources including oil”.

This contradicts the 2050 African Union’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, adopted just a couple of months ago, which envisions the establishment of a Combined Exclusive Maritime Zone of Africa and the African Union’s vision of “a common African maritime space without barriers”. One would expect that the various agreements and initiatives aimed at minimising maritime insecurity would be aligned firstly at an intra-continental and regional level, and then at the international level, instead of conflicting with each other.

The EU strategy seems to think that lessons learned from the anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa can simply be exported to the Gulf of Guinea, despite the two regions’ clear differences. It is worth remembering that private maritime security companies, which have extensive experience in combating piracy in the Horn of Africa, face a completely different environment and regulatory framework in the Gulf of Guinea.

For example, in an effort to strictly regulate the private maritime security industry, Nigeria issues licences only to local operators, while foreign companies can operate legally only with the status of partnership. It is obvious that the region doesn’t wish to follow the model that the EU is trying to enforce – and it remains to be seen how willing the EU is to fall in line with what West African countries prefer.

Ultimately, the strategy is inevitably an economic one. Perhaps it is just coincidence that the same day as the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted this strategy, the same EU entity confirmed the EU’s new support of at least €6.5 billion for the Economic Partnership Agreement Development Program (PAPED) for West Africa – or perhaps not.

The EU imports nearly 10% of its oil and 4% of its natural gas from the region, and the proximity of the Gulf definitely offers the potential for the EU to increase its hydrocarbon imports. Maritime security must be guaranteed first. On the one hand, this is clear evidence that development and security tend go hand in hand in general. But equally, the strategy is perfectly timed to help the EU wean itself off energy bought from Russia.

The potentially deep chill in East-West relations has put a great deal at stake and the controversial Russian intervention in the Crimean Peninsula has reminded the EU just how dependent it is on a single volatile energy provider. The Gulf of Guinea, with its vast offshore oil and gas deposits, offers an ideal alternative – provided its high levels of organised crime in general and maritime crime in particular can be dealt with first.

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