Europe Is Replacing Energy Dependence on Russia With Reliance on North African Dictatorships

The European Union’s pivot away from Russian fossil fuels is being sold as part of the green energy transition. Yet the plan’s reliance on imports from Morocco and occupied Western Sahara shows how it is driving a new kind of green colonialism.

European energy commissioner Kadri Simson speaks at a press conference in Brussels on December 15, 2021. (Zheng Huansong / Xinhua via Getty Images)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this month the European Union unveiled plans to slash Russian gas imports by two-thirds over the next year and to cease all fossil fuel imports from the country “well before” 2030. Officials acknowledged that to meet such ambitious targets, the EU will initially depend largely on imports of the more carbon-intensive liquified natural gas and domestic coal power production — leading the Financial Times to ask, “Will the Ukraine war derail the green energy transition?”

EU leaders pushed back against such a conclusion, promising to regain ground across the next decade. They called for a rollout of renewable energy production at a faster pace than previously projected. “In the shorter term, we need to further diversify our gas supplies away from Russia,” European energy commissioner Kadri Simson told reporters. “But, ultimately, the best and the only lasting solution is the [EU’s] Green Deal — boosting renewables and energy efficiency as fast as technically possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is in the current situation to put our collective power behind policies that are on the right side of history.”

Yet having published its revised energy roadmap, the bloc’s leadership has so far ruled out the prospect of a new supranational joint stimulus fund to finance and deliver on its targets. Even faced with a generational geopolitical upheaval, it seems the EU still cannot kick its austerian reflexes. As researcher Mujtaba Rahman notes: “Germany’s plan is literally — every country for itself. To deal with the short and medium term consequences of the Russian war in Ukraine, member states are going to have to rely on their own domestic budgets.”

Beyond that, however, its revised roadmap, dubbed REPowerEU, has also faced criticism for prioritizing a more immediate rollout of green hydrogen — the solution favored by fossil fuel lobbies. A low- or zero-emissions fuel, green hydrogen is seen as essential to decarbonizing heavy industry, aviation, and haulage over the coming decades. But it is also being hijacked by gas giants as a cover under which to continue burning fossil fuels. And the model for its development in Europe depends on outsourcing substantial costs onto neighboring countries in North Africa.

Indeed, the REPowerEU plan places its bets on green hydrogen imports from countries such as Morocco and Egypt. The EU’s revised plan includes a fourfold increase in the 2030 target for renewable hydrogen, with nearly 60 percent of the total supply projected to come from outside the EU. As Europe’s corporate energy giants lead the charge, the alternative to Russian gas envisioned by the EU looks increasingly bound up with a new form of green colonialism. Telling of its negative impact on North Africa’s own populations, this supposedly ethical alternative is also inextricably linked to that other war of occupation on the continent’s frontiers — in Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara.

The Green Hydrogen Race for Africa

Sometimes misleadingly labelled “the new oil,” green hydrogen is seen as a means to decarbonize industries like steel, chemical, and cement production that require extreme temperatures and so cannot convert directly to electric. It is itself produced by using electricity generated from renewable energy to electrolyze large amounts of water; i.e., to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gases.

But while green hydrogen has increasingly become a key component of the EU’s energy transition strategy, the levels of renewable energy required to power this process means most European states have a limited potential for producing it at a mass scale. A report from German think tank Agora Energiewende notes, “Meeting estimated hydrogen demand in the EU purely with [domestic] wind and solar would require eight times as much electricity to be produced from these sources by 2050 than was produced in 2020,” with over half of that total electricity being “dedicated towards hydrogen production.”

The answer comes from the outside. This same report also notes that “North Africa, owing to its excellent solar potential, could be supplying just under half of the EU’s hydrogen demand at prices well below the European average [by 2050] — and at low transport costs due to pipelines.” In recent months, an initial series of green hydrogen megaprojects have been unveiled in the region: French corporation Total Eren has announced a $10.7 billion facility to be built at a giant 170,000 hectare site in Morocco, which will be operational by 2025, while Norwegian Scatec has signed a deal for one of the largest green hydrogen plants on the African continent in Egypt, which will begin production by 2024 in a deal worth an initial $5 billion.

Within the EU, Germany in particular has pursued an import-led strategy, looking both to Southern European states such as Spain as potential sources while also earmarking €2 billion in public funds toward hydrogen partnerships beyond the EU. These include a strategic bilateral venture in Morocco as well as agreements further afield with countries such as Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Australia — though questions remain about the cost and viability of the long-distance shipping of the fuel. German giant Siemens has also been very active, signing a memorandum of understanding in 2021 with Egypt to develop large-scale green hydrogen projects in the country with an estimated total cost of $23 billion, as well as being involved in pilot schemes in Morocco.

“If the priority was to produce green hydrogen as a fuel to decarbonize our own economies in North Africa, that would at least be a sovereign project,” the Transnational Institute’s Hamza Hamouchene tells Jacobin.

But this is all being driven from outside by foreign corporations. The pressures coming from Europe are huge, but if we start by producing for exports, this will delay our own green transition in Africa. We should get our electricity mix up to 70 to 80 percent renewable before we even start thinking about exporting to the EU. But unfortunately, this is not where the profits are.

Green Colonialism

Beyond delaying the African green transition, these European-led megaprojects are also likely to displace a series of other costs onto local populations through the forced dispossession of large tracts of land from agrarian and pastoral communities and by diverting scarce water supplies away from drinking and agriculture. This type of “green grabbing” of resources has already been seen in relation to the construction of the Ouarzazate solar plants in Morocco, the world’s largest concentrated plant, where farmers were subject to “compulsory [land] sales at extraordinarily low rates” while the plant now consumes between two to three million cubic meters of water per year cooling the solar panels.

A December 2020 report from Corporate Europe Observatory notes that it no accident that the energy industry “has sought authoritarian regimes with which to broker deals” on large-scale green projects, since they can be pushed through with little say from locals and or similar obstacles from environmental, labor, and social regulations. As an international green hydrogen market begins to take shape amid a new scramble for Africa, Hamouchene argues these relations of exploitation, underdevelopment, and land grabbing “follow a familiar colonial scheme where you have the free flow of cheap natural resources from the Global South to the rich North, in this case renewables, while the costs associated with their extraction are imposed on the peoples of the South.” He continues:

In order to meet Europe’s hydrogen demand, Morocco would need to install sixty-two times the capacity of the Ouarzazate solar plant. You also have to remember the amount of water that will be required to produce this hydrogen. Where is that going to come from? There is a lot of talk about desalination plants, on top of all this, to purify seawater, but this would then necessitate further energy production to power these plants. I don’t see how any of this is sustainable.

But that is what happens when you only think in terms of exports and simply see the Sahara as an empty space from which to extract value — you don’t take into account local communities, their livelihoods or welfare.

These export-led projects also tend to be developed in alliance with the local ruling classes through public-private partnerships, under which government-backed loans minimize the risk associated with the investments for European multinationals and corrupt local elites alike. In the case of Morocco, which is likely to become the EU’s largest hydrogen supplier in the coming decades and potentially the location for a regional hub for processing hydrogen from other African countries, renewable megaprojects in solar and wind are already translating into the enrichment of the Morrocan royal family through the participation of its own private renewable energy company, Nareva, as well as that of companies and financial interest associated with its inner circle.

Reinforcing Occupation

Yet tying Europe’s future energy security to another ultranationalist authoritarian kleptocracy is not without its challenges. It risks potentially leaving the EU “as dependent on hydrogen imports from Morocco as it is today on gas imports from Russia,” according to a recent report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. It adds, “The price to pay for cheaper hydrogen supplies will be the possibility of reproducing past energy dependence patterns and security of supply risks. . . . While shifting the geopolitical center of gravity from East to South would have major implications, it would do little to enhance the Union’s strategic autonomy on energy.”

Morocco has already shown its willingness to flex its diplomatic muscle with respect to the EU, including in its role as an outsourced border guard for the bloc. In early 2021, Mohammed VI’s government broke off diplomatic relations with both Spain and Germany after the two countries condemned Donald Trump’s last-minute recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the occupied Western Sahara. In a further escalation of the crisis, Morocco then opened the border crossing with Ceuta — a Spanish enclave in North Africa — allowing a record six thousand immigrants to cross in one day last May. Tellingly, it also simultaneously froze its hydrogen agreement with Germany.

Western Sahara also figures heavily in the current shift in EU energy policy. Known as “Africa’s last colony,” this resource-rich territory the size of Britain was denied its independence upon the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975, as Moroccan troops rapidly invaded in their stead. In the decades since, Morocco has installed what Freedom House describes as one of the most unfree political regimes on the planet, where journalists, human rights activists, and pro-independence supporters face police harassment, torture, and lengthy jail sentences.

But the occupation of Western Sahara has also become an integral part of Morocco’s green hydrogen strategy and a condition of possibility for it to become a strategic exporter. “By 2030, 47 percent of Morocco’s total wind energy will come from the occupied territories and up to 32 percent of its solar energy,” energy politics researcher Joanna Allan tells Jacobin.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, with Western Sahara’s potential for wind energy more than double that of all Morocco’s, according to World Bank calculations. And so Morocco is making itself ever more dependent on the occupied Sahara for its energy needs, and then, via exports, is going to implicate Europe and sub-Saharan countries as well in this colonial exploitation.

Moroccan pressure has ultimately had its desired effect, as the EU shifted its position on Western Sahara over the last year. Early in 2022, the new German coalition government signaled it was abandoning the United Nations’ stated policy, which calls for decolonization and a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people, to back plans for the territory’s incorporation as an autonomous region within the Moroccan state. This has been followed, since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, by similar moves from French president Emmanuel Macron and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Hence, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU leaders are suddenly defending the annexation of one African nation by another.

The pivot is clearly bound up with security concerns, above all guaranteeing Morocco’s continued cooperation on policing the EU’s southern borders with respect to immigration, but it is also about locking down a strategic energy partnership for the coming decades, particularly for Germany. “Increasingly interested in renewable energy projects and plans to manufacture green hydrogen in the Maghreb, Germany has made a stronger political, economic, and technological presence in North Africa a priority,” writes veteran Spanish journalist Enric Juliana. “After the outbreak of the [Ukrainian] war, this [strategic] option has become an absolute priority.”

Meanwhile, the armed conflict between Moroccan forces and the pro-independence Polisario Front continues along the seven-thousand-kilometer defensive sand berm dividing the territory, with regular clashes reported. At the same time, a wave of protests that erupted in the occupied zone of Western Sahara in February was brutally suppressed by Moroccan military police and paramilitary units. The protests erupted after the disappearance of a local man under police surveillance, whose tortured and charred remains were later discovered. This is the reality of Saharawi “autonomy” within Morocco.

The deaths along the migration route from the Western Saharan coast to Spain’s Canary Islands also continue to mount, as forty-four people died on March 12 after their boat capsized in the Atlantic — a further reminder of Europe’s indifference toward the lives of refugees coming from the South, as well as of the stark contrast in treatment between those arriving from Africa and Ukraine.

Europe’s Hydrogen Moon Shot

Ultimately, the EU’s cynical realpolitik, and willingness to rapidly break with decades of established foreign policy on Western Sahara, underscores the importance being given to securing international green hydrogen markets. Under the REPowerEU plan, the supranational bloc’s 2030 target is increased from a supply of 5.6 million tons per year to 20.6, with ten of the additional fifteen projected as coming from overseas. The roadmap also talks of a “Hydrogen Accelerator” investment scheme so as to upgrade existing gas pipelines to make them hydrogen-compatible, as well as develop hydrogen-ready storage facilities, ports, and other infrastructure.

These types of capital-intensive projects could represent a bonanza for gas producers and infrastructure companies, but a number of analysts have questioned the feasibility of such a rapid expansion of a sector still in its infancy, particularly as a means to replace up to a third of Russian gas imports within only eight years. Though it will play an important role in the coming decades as an energy source for specific sectors, “hydrogen cannot deliver impact in the short term” in terms of decarbonization, a report from the Bellona Foundation insists, adding that scaling its production will be “ineffective at reducing gas use” in the here and now.

For Europe to even meet its more limited domestic targets for green hydrogen by 2030 risks consuming a substantive portion of the new wind and solar energy produced in the EU, according to the report, while the ramp-up of imports from North Africa over the next decade will slow the green transition in the Maghreb. A more efficient way to phase out gas in the near term, the report argues, would be to reallocate renewable energy that was to be deployed for the production of hydrogen and instead use it to maximize the phasing out of gas-fired electricity and to power heat pumps — then only turning to green hydrogen “as and when direct electrification potentials are maxed out.”

This, however, does not fit with the priorities of the EU’s corporate-centered green transition, in which behemoths like Total, Iberdrola, and Snam are determined to carve out significant shares of a global hydrogen market that Goldman Sachs estimates will be worth $10 trillion by 2050. The ramping up of green hydrogen over the coming decade will not only be built on neocolonial extractivism but also represent an inefficient deployment of the available renewable energy resources within Europe. But, crucially, it will create the conditions for the consolidation and expansion of existing corporate power.