The reach and power of the EU and its institutions are up for serious debate as Europe prepares to enter into an “Energy Union”. The European Commission plans to publish its vision for such a Union by the end of February. But already member states and Members of the European Parliament are weighing in with their own ideas of what Europe should prioritise – and who should be in charge. Sonja van Renssen reports from Brussels.
I read a book over Christmas called “Is the EU doomed?”. It sounds gloomy, but wasn’t at all, actually. The author, Jan Zielonka, describes himself as a “genuine European”, with Dutch and Polish passports, a house in Italy and a professorship in European politics at the University of Oxford in the UK. His belief is that Europe will become more not less integrated in future. But the vehicle will not be the EU – severely weakened by the economic crisis – rather a “neo-medieval” plethora of decentralised, results-oriented networks. Regions, cities, business and civil society will take charge – and do so with popular support.
The UK wants a “more pro-active nuclear policy” from Brussels, and support for indigenous fossil fuel technologies including shale gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS)
To some extent, this vision is already finding voice in the emerging debate over an Energy Union for Europe. New European Commission Vice-President for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič, set out a basic 5-point plan for it back in October. This is likely to stick, but very different ideas are emerging over the details.
The Commission will weigh in with a follow-up paper of its own in mid- to late-February, following an internal debate among Commissioners on 21 January and a dedicated Energy Union conference led by the Latvian EU presidency on 6 February in Riga. The issue that is emerging as the core of the debate is governance.
Power to the nation state…
The need for a new energy governance system stems from the Commission’s proposals for a 2030 climate and energy policy. It suggested – and European leaders have endorsed – a 27% renewables target that is binding only at EU, not national, level. The Commission proposed that member states draw up national energy action plans to help it monitor compliance. The idea has evolved however, into one where national plans would cover all aspects of energy policy, i.e. competitiveness and security of supply as well as sustainability. As a result, governance now also finds itself at the heart of the Energy Union debate.
The question is where EU powers stop and national competence begins. Green MEP Claude Turmes on 7 January accused the UK of trying to shut the European Parliament out of energy governance completely. In a non-paper co-authored with the Czech Republic, the UK proposes a “light touch” approach from Brussels that would centre on “collective progress… rather than… details of implementation at national level”. Talks on national plans would be “conducted informally and bilaterally between member states and the Commission”. The Commission would report back to the European Council – not Parliament – every three years.
“Regional markets have the potential to overcome a lack of trust. And we cannot deepen energy policies without trust”
In this, the Greens spy a broader plot to circumvent the normal legislative process. Usually, new energy laws are co-decided by member states and MEPs. But sometimes heads of state and government weigh in, as they did for the 2030 climate and energy package. There, European leaders categorically rejected nationally binding renewables and efficiency targets. But the Parliament still wants them, Turmes said. He fears that the UK’s latest proposals are part of an effort to sideline MEPs, elevate energy issues to “strategic” and therefore require them to be decided – unanimously – by leaders. In the normal legislative process, member states decide by qualified majority (with votes weighted according to population).
A second problem for the Greens is that the UK – in a position paper on the Energy Union – explicitly calls for the promotion of all “low and lower carbon sources of energy”. Specifically, the UK wants a “more pro-active nuclear policy” from Brussels, and support for indigenous fossil fuel technologies including shale gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Turmes says these calls contravene the EU Treaty, which in article 194 supports only the specific promotion of energy efficiency and renewables. The UK proposals on governance and the Energy Union are a climate, not climate and energy, policy argues Turmes.
… Or rise of the regions?
The Greens will issue their own vision for the Energy Union next week, when the Parliament meets in Strasbourg. One idea they will push is more regional and local cooperation. The Commission has also started thinking along these lines. The basis for future energy governance will be regional, a senior Commission official told the European Forum for Renewable Energy Sources (EUFORES) in Lisbon back in October. Regional, not national, energy plans are the goal. The Commission may revisit renewables support from the regional perspective and promote cross-border public procurement for municipalities to support both renewables and efficiency.
If the EU is serious about its Energy Union, it must be about a rebalancing of powers – a new governance system
Turmes suggested that the Commission should take a seat at the table of the existing intergovernmental Pentalateral Energy Forum and seek to replicate the concept for the Baltic region and Southeast Europe. “Regional markets have the potential to overcome a lack of trust,” he said. “And we cannot deepen energy policies without trust.” For him too, the regional approach “is a way to do it cheaper”.
These ideas fit well with Zielonka’s, albeit with one crucial difference: “The role of the European Commission in regional cooperation will be crucial,” believes Turmes. For him – and presumably the Commission itself – the EU must be a central coordinator and monitor. Zielonka on the other hand, believes that these initiatives will largely run themselves. To the question of who ultimately decides which policies and values are prioritised, Zielonka suggests that the new networks will have to engage in moral dialogues “which go beyond negotiations of facts or interests and concern mutual perception of the common good”.
That may not be any easier at regional or city than national level. Yet on-the-ground networks such as the Covenant of Mayors, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Energy Cities already provide inspiring examples of climate and energy leadership. At the same time, cross-sector alliances such as the Coalition for Energy Savings bring together businesses, local authorities, trade unions and civil society to promote energy efficiency. There are bottom-up community power projects and a growing debate over the role of local network providers. Utilities such as Eon see their future in renewables and the retail market. If the EU is serious about its Energy Union, it must be about a rebalancing of powers – a new governance system. And as Zielonka suggests, the biggest loser may well end up being the nation state.