Terrorist attacks and the spectre of Brexit have cast a shadow over Brussels, including the great Energy Union project. But there are deeper reasons why the Energy Union, one of the top priorities of the European Commission, is running into serious difficulties. Power markets are still overwhelmingly determined by national policies and member states resist EU-wide initiatives in many crucial energy policy areas, writes Sonja van Renssen.
These are strange days in Brussels. The terrorist attacks of 22 March emptied the streets and shut down the airport. The migration crisis has sent European leaders rushing back to their capitals. Brexit threatens while Europe wavers. Here in Brussels, the result so far has been a wave of cancelled events and bankruptcies in the service sector, stagnated policy making and big uncertainty over the future of Europe. Energy policy is no exception to this general malaise.
European Commission officials are reportedly under strict instructions to decide nothing – and this means “absolutely nothing” one EU source stipulated – until after 23 June, the day UK voters decide whether to “remain” in or “leave” the EU. “The referendum is having a chilling effect on policy making in Brussels and in the UK,” says Jonathan Gaventa, a director at climate and energy think tank E3G in London. “It has also been a convenient thing to blame for pushing back difficult decisions.”
The fact is that the Energy Union is running into difficulties. “It’s moving very slowly, if at all,” says Brook Riley, an energy efficiency expert at Friends of the Earth Europe.
“Energy issues are still not dealt with by heads of state and government,” says Georg Zachmann, a scholar at the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute, a think tank. “This is one of the major blocking items because the decisions necessary to create something that could be called an Energy Union are really beyond the remit of energy ministers.” Decisions on energy have implications for everything from national autonomy to industrial competitiveness to issues like health.