EU satellites to watch for sabotage and threats against critical infrastructure

European Union to also work with Nato to guard against potential attacks in wake of Nord Stream pipeline sabotage - von der Leyen

The European Union will use its satellites to watch for threats to critical infrastructure such as undersea cables and increase cooperation with Nato to guard against potential attacks in the wake of the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said.

Speaking in the European Parliament, Dr von der Leyen said damage inflicted on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines that caused large leaks last week had highlighted that critical infrastructure was at risk.

“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,” she told the MEPs.

“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 laid out a “five point” plan to increase protection of these assets and prepare emergency responses in case of attacks.

“We will make best use of our satellite surveillance capacity – we have these satellites in place, we have the capacity to do the surveillance to detect potential threats,” Dr von der Leyen said.

The Commission would work with member states to conduct “stress tests” in the energy sector, followed by “other high-risk sectors, such as offshore digital and the electricity infrastructure”, she continued.

“We don’t need to wait until something happens... We need to identify its weak points and where these weak points are,” she said.

“We have to prepare our reaction to sudden disruptions: what are we doing then? Are all the information chains in place? Is everybody informed?”

A new EU directive on the resilience of critical entities, which is due to be voted on in the European Parliament next week, would mean EU countries would have to identify critical infrastructure that is essential to key services, and introduce a national strategy to increase its resilience, carrying out a risk assessment every four years.

Under the directive, infrastructure that provides an essential service to six or more member states would be identified as a “critical entity”, and the Commission could examine whether it is sufficiently protected.

In addition, the EU will increase its emergency response programme, the Civil Protection Mechanism, to be prepared for potential critical infrastructure attacks - for example, to be ready with fuel generators or shelter capacity in case of attacks on energy infrastructure, Dr von der Leyen said.

“Finally, we will strengthen cooperation with Nato and key partners like the United States on this critical issue,” she told MEPs.

Triggering concern

EU national leaders are set to discuss the Nord Stream pipeline incident and its implications for other critical infrastructure when they meet in Prague later this week.

The leaders will “examine how best to protect our critical infrastructure”, according to the invitation letter sent to attendees by European Council President Charles Michel.

An EU official said that the apparent sabotage of the pipeline had been “triggering some concern” and that it would be one of the “main discussions” at the summit on Friday.

“We can improve coordination,” the official said. “The first lesson is that we need cooperation and we need to be focused on this.”

An analysis of security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure, commissioned by the European Parliament this year, found that Ireland and Malta were the only two member states that are “fully dependent on subsea cables”.

It noted that Russia had conducted naval exercises close to undersea cables southwest of Ireland in February this year.

“The increasingly aggressive Russian undersea activity raises the possibility that Moscow could seek to damage cable networks as part of escalating the conflict through grey zone activities,” it read.

It noted that Moscow had “severed the main terrestrial cable connection to the outside world” when it annexed Crimea in 2014, in order “to gain control of the peninsula’s internet infrastructure and hence the flow of information”.

While “Ireland does not possess significant subsea surveillance capabilities”, the report read, the “risks of simultaneous failure” of cables running into Ireland was diminished because they “come from multiple directions”.

If some cables are damaged but not others, internet traffic can re-route through remaining cables.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times