The European Union is about to settle its long-standing dispute with the Russian oil company Gazprom in a move that could be seen as catering to the state-run giant and at a time of increasing tensions between Russia and the West. The antitrust decision would conclude one of its most politically sensitive competition battles and would allow Gazprom to avoid billion-dollar fines in exchange for commitments aimed at breaking the Russian company’s grip on the bloc’s natural-gas supply especially in Eastern European EU member states. However, the deal would have a very small impact on Gazprom because it would involve commitments to alter some business practices it has already changed due to customer pressure.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief, has been trying to separate politics from the Gazprom investigation since she assumed the office in 2014. Brussels has been investigating the Russian exporting giant for almost seven years due to its alleged unfair pricing and restrictive practices in Central and Eastern European markets. The company supplies about one-third of Europe’s natural-gas imports. In 2016, the EU Commission proposed a plan to let Gazprom avoid fines but the deal met with an uproar in some EU countries. Poland’s state-run PGNiG SA for example advocated penalties for Gazprom, which could help European competitors in court if they decided to sue for damages.
Ms. Vestager has defended her decision to seek a deal with Gazprom saying that financial penalties for the company’s past behavior would lead to lengthy court proceedings, and wouldn’t necessarily have a positive impact on the company’s business practices. She has also emphasized the EU could still impose penalties on Gazprom if it doesn’t meet its obligations. Ms. Vestager also reiterated the efforts of her team to separate politics from the antitrust case. “It is very important to us what happens also geopolitically,” she said. “But it is something that we try to keep strictly apart from the case specifics.”