BRUSSELS - Thirteen EU nations voiced support on Monday for a proposal to empower the bloc's executive to negotiate with Russia over objections to a new Russian gas pipeline to Germany, despite opposition from Berlin.
At an informal debate among EU energy ministers, Germany's partners in the 28-nation bloc spoke out against Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline plan to pump more gas directly from Russia's Baltic coast to Germany.
EU nations are expected to vote in the autumn on the European Commission's request for a mandate to negotiate with Russia on behalf of the bloc as a whole.
Germany, the main beneficiary of the pipeline, sees it as a purely commercial project, with Chancellor Angela Merkel last week saying she saw no role for the Commission.
The plan taps into divisions among the bloc over doing business with Russia, which covers a third of the EU's gas needs, despite sanctions against Moscow over its military intervention in Ukraine.
In private, EU officials say they hope direct talks with Russia would delay the project past 2019, depriving Russian state gas exporter Gazprom of leverage in talks over transit fees for Ukraine, the current route for most gas supplies to Europe.
Germany, Austria and France - which have firms partnering with Gazprom on the project - declined to take the floor on Monday, EU diplomats said.
"We had 13 delegations intervening, with all of them being supportive of the Commission's approach," Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters by telephone after presenting the EU executive's case to member states. "I am definitely optimistic about getting the mandate, but I know this is just the beginning of the debate."
The Commission found support from Italy as well as Nordic, Eastern European and Baltic states, EU sources told Reuters.
"Germany has commercial interests, but it needs to explain itself," one senior EU official said.
With the pipeline expected to reroute Russian gas supplies around Ukraine to the north, Italy voiced concerns it would increase gas prices for customers further down the line.
Eastern European and Baltic states fear it will increase their dependence on Gazprom and undercut Ukraine.
Nordic nations, meanwhile, have security concerns over the pipeline being laid near their shores under the Baltic Sea, where Russia has bolstered its military presence.
However, many EU nations have yet to take a stand.
"It is quite toxic. Many member states are quite wary of advertising their position," one diplomat told Reuters.
There are also differences among EU member states over what aims to pursue in potential talks with Russia.
Speaking in Paris on Monday, Ukraine's foreign minister said the draft EU proposal did not go far enough to secure guarantees from Russia, warning Nord Stream 2 would have "dangerous consequences" for the bloc.
Adding to tensions is the threat of new U.S. sanctions on Russia that would penalize Western firms involved in Nord Stream 2: Uniper, Wintershall, Shell, OMV and Engie.
Several EU diplomats said the measures proposed by the U.S. Senate have already backfired against their stated aim of bolstering European energy security.
"It's a divisive measure," one senior official said. "It's easy for the U.S. to go after Russian gas of course, they don't use it. ... We are trying to make the best of a bad thing by balancing the interest of different member states."