EU to hold joint naval exercises amid growing maritime security threats
BRUSSELS, March 10 (Reuters) - The European Union wants to hold joint naval exercises as part of plans published on Friday to step up its efforts to protect critical infrastructure at sea.
Concerns about threats to Europe's maritime infrastructure were heightened by attacks in September on the Nord Stream pipelines, which left them spewing natural gas into the Baltic Sea.
The EU has updated its maritime security strategy, outlining plans to hold an annual naval exercise from 2024 and coordinate member countries' national efforts to protect gas pipelines, undersea data cables, offshore wind farms and other critical maritime infrastructure.
EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters that planning had been under way before the Nord Stream blasts, but had been strengthened in response to them.
"After that, member states were very clear that we need to further strengthen cooperation, build capacity, ensure that our critical infrastructure is better protected," he said.
The EU plan sets out to increase cooperation between the EU and NATO, expand coastal patrols and improve efforts to identify threats early - such as by using EU satellite programmes to detect unidentified vessels.
The EU will also produce a risk assessment, disaster recovery plans and regional surveillance plans, according to the strategy.
"The threat level is increasing," Sinkevicius said.
Energy infrastructure is a particular concern, as Europe expands its offshore wind farms and its use of liquefied natural gas terminals to replace Russian pipeline gas.
The Netherlands said a Russian ship detected at an offshore wind farm in the North Sea last month was part of attempts by Moscow to gain intelligence to sabotage infrastructure.
Improved surveillance of maritime areas should also help countries monitor and respond to environmental degradation and the effects of climate change such as sea level rise.
Authorities in Sweden, Germany and Denmark are investigating the blasts on the Nord Stream pipelines, which were constructed to supply Russian gas to Europe. They have said the explosions were deliberate but have not said who might be responsible.
(Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)