EU vows to draw up plans to protect critical infrastructure

Suspected Russian sabotage of Europe’s gas pipelines has left the EU scrambling to come up with a protection plan for the bloc’s critical infrastructure.

“The acts of sabotage against Nord Stream pipelines have shown how vulnerable our energy infrastructure is. For the first time in recent history, it has become a target,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday (5 October).

Four leaks were detected last week on the two Nord Stream pipelines that connect Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea.

An investigation is now underway, but Western countries say they are most likely the result of deliberate action with Sweden and Denmark having written a letter to the United Nations Security Council.

EU leaders are set to discuss the issue on Friday at an informal summit in Prague. European countries have already stepped up security measures to safeguard energy supplies in the North Sea and off the coast of Italy.

The incidents have prompted some countries to send in military to secure potentially vulnerable energy systems.

EU member states need to step up protection of their critical infrastructure, by conducting stress tests and using satellite surveillance to detect potential threats, Von der Leyen said.

“Pipelines and underwater cables connect European citizens and companies to the world. They are the lifeline of data and energy. It is in the interest of all Europeans to better protect this critical infrastructure,” she added.

Ireland earlier last week already raised concerns over the safety of its undersea communication cables.

Norway said its allies would help patrol its oil and gas platforms at sea after the explosions.

The European Commission, meanwhile, said last week it would run a ‘stress test’ on the security of critical European infrastructure, but it remained unclear what such a step would entail.

“To many in Brussels it came as a surprise that such ‘stress tests’ seem not to have been conducted more regularly, or that the EU’s executive was lacking the situation awareness to outright name their critical infrastructure across the bloc,” one EU official told EURACTIV under the condition of anonymity.

This would also be the consequence of the bloc for years “living in a garden of peace” and not being able to consider anticipate potential attacks could become reality, the EU official added.

The EU’s recently adopted military strategy, the Strategic Compass, for the first time made a veiled reference to the changed geopolitical situation in the EU’s neighbourhood affecting “the security of our citizens, our critical infrastructure and the integrity of our borders.”

However, it mostly refers to cyber threats.

“We must also be able to swiftly and forcefully respond to cyberattacks, such as state-sponsored malicious cyber activities targeting critical infrastructure and ransomware attacks,” the Strategic Compass states.

EU’s five-point plan

The EU’s executive is in the process of updating its 2008 critical infrastructure directive. Th revised directive will seek to cover 11 risk areas, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, internal threats, and sabotage, but also public health emergencies like the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

The new law is slated to come into force in 2024, but von der Leyen stated that “we can and should already now be working on this basis.”

For that, the EU chief announced she will soon lay out a five-point plan covering different aspects of EU readiness.

Europe needs to be better prepared, she said, pointing to new legislation to strengthen the resilience of critical EU entities, due to be voted on in the European Parliament next week.

The bloc would also need to “stress test” its infrastructure, first those related to energy supply but also “other high-risk sectors” including offshore digital cables and electricity grids.

“We don’t have to wait till something happens but we need to make sure that we’re prepared and therefore we need those stress tests,” she said.

“We need to identify whether we have weak points and where these weak points are and, of course, we have to prepare our reaction to sudden disruptions. What are we doing then? Are all the information chains in place? Is everybody informed? Does this emergency scenario really work then in our Single Market?,” she told the European Parliament.

Alongside this, Europe should also increase its capacity to respond, including by supporting impacted areas with fuel and generators, through the civil protection mechanism.

The alleged sabotage of Nord Stream has also raised questions about how such infrastructure can be protected.

Von der Leyen highlighted the use of satellites in order to monitor the situation and emphasised the need to strengthen coordination with NATO.

“We have these satellites in place, we have the capacity to do the surveillance to detect potential threats, so this is also a matter of prevention and awareness,” she said.

NATO raises preparedness

NATO’s northern members and partners have already begun tightening security.

“All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” the North Atlantic Council said in a statement last week.

It also said it had committed “to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors.”

“Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response,” it added.

However, NATO diplomats admitted behind closed doors it would be “rather difficult” to make sure Russia’s ability to sabotage European infrastructure is limited.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]


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