by Xinhua writer Liu Li
The European Union and four countries from Central Asia and the Middle East signed a declaration here Friday to cooperate more closely in seeking alternative energy supplies and transportation routes in order to reduce the EU's dependency on Russia.
After meeting with EU officials, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia and Turkey signed a joint declaration on the "Southern Corridor" that involves countries from Central Asia, Southern Caucasus, Mashreq and the Middle East.
The parties are trying to establish direct connections between both sides of the Caspian Sea as a key element of energy cooperation and support linking the Southern Corridor with the EU through strategic infrastructure projects necessary for carrying natural gas by pipelines or ships, the declaration said.
Representatives from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan present at the meeting did not sign the document.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called the initiative a key priority project for the EU to enhance its energy security by diversifying its energy resources and routes.
The 27-nation bloc and the energy partners also agreed on a common strategy and a clear timetable on the completion of projects, including the trans-Caspian link, Barroso said.
In a follow-up, concerned EU member states and Turkey will soon finish negotiations for an intergovernmental agreement on a Nabucco pipeline project and sign it by the end of June, he said.
The EU countries concerned and the relevant countries by the end of this year will sign the agreement on a ITGI project to carry Caspian gas via Turkey and Greece to Italy, he added.
In addition, they will conclude a feasibility study on the Caspian Development Corporation initiative by the end of this year, Barroso said, adding that Brussels and Iraq will sign a memorandum of understanding on energy.
According to the declaration, energy producers will dedicate specific volumes of oil or gas for the corridor and the EU with a precise timetable for their availability.
The transit countries have committed to transparent, long-term and predictable regulatory conditions resulting in a clear, stable transit regime, Barroso said.
In return, the consumer countries, or the EU, promised aggregate demand, he said. The EU should also offer its partners the technology and investment they need to upgrade their own energy systems and use their resources more efficiently.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the declaration was a "breakthrough" in the EU's efforts to diversify its energy supplies.
The EU now needs specific projects to flesh it out, he said.
"We need financing from both public and private sectors to get this on the road," he said.
Topolanek said Russia has expressed its concern about the southern corridor project.
"Russia is not over-excited about this, but they have to accept that we need to diversify our energy sources," he said.
Representatives from Russia, the United States and Ukraine participated in Friday's meeting as observers.
The EU has been working for years on the idea of building a southern corridor that could reduce its reliance on Russian gas. Russia currently provides a quarter of all the gas consumed in the bloc.
The Russia-Ukraine gas disputes during the past two winters have made it all the more imperative for the EU to seek alternative supplies from the Middle East the the Caspian Sea region.
The bloc is pushing for the construction of three new pipelines that would ultimately bring natural gas to Europe from the Caspian basin, Iran and Iraq.