Sánchez and Scholz. / EFE

Pipe dreams

Spain is excited at the prospect of the Midcat pipeline, if not too optimistic

Mark Nayler
MARK NAYLER

Pedro Sánchez was in Berlin this week, mainly to walk through some pleasant-looking gardens with German chancellor Olaf Scholz. While strolling, both leaders pulled off excellent impressions of people who were Very Relaxed (open-neck shirts) but also Deep In Conversation.

They talked about restarting work on the Midcat pipeline, which would connect Spain to central Europe via the Pyrenees. But unfortunately for Scholz and Sánchez (and for Portugal's prime minister Antonio Costa, also very keen on the idea), the project is proving as divisive now as it did several years ago, even though Russia's invasion of Ukraine has since caused an energy crisis across the EU.

Work started in 2003 on the 190-kilometre pipeline, which was intended to channel gas from Algeria through Spain to central Europe; but the project was abandoned in 2019, amid financing obstacles and concerns about its environmental impact.

France was never particularly enthused about Midcat and remains sceptical, despite some diplomatic guff from economy minister Bruno Le Maire this week. Speaking to journalists in Paris, Le Maire said that Scholz and Sánchez were "friends" and that France is always ready to "examine the requests of our friends, our partners".

French president Emmanuel Macron has two main objections to the pipeline: first, that it would take too long to build to alleviate Ukraine-related energy shortages; and secondly, that it's far from clear whether it could be used to transport hydrogen as well.

French energy experts have also argued that it would be easier (and no more expensive) to improve German infrastructure so that gas could be delivered by boat.

Spain is much more enthusiastic, mainly because it wants to become Europe's main hub for Algerian gas, as well as for hydrogen in the future (assuming Midcat would make that possible). The Spanish government's impatience to restart construction in the Catalan Pyrenees, though, has coloured its projections for time and cost.

Environment minister Teresa Ribera reckons the bill for Midcat would be around 440 million euros (the estimated cost of the original pipeline) and that Spain's section could be built in just nine months. One can't help thinking, though, that both estimates are hugely optimistic - especially if a Spanish contractor gets the gig.

France appears more realistic in forecasting that construction would take years and cost three billion euros.

If reluctant France presents a problem to the north, Algeria is a potential hindrance to the south. Sánchez's alignment with Morocco over Western Sahara has damaged relations with one of Spain's main suppliers of gas, potentially threatening supplies in the future. Perhaps before the diggers are sent to Catalonia, Sánchez should be flown abroad for another stroll in a nice garden, this time with Algerian prime minister Aiman Benabderrahmane.