This year European energy ministers will have to come to a decision on the European Commission’s legislative package “Clean Energy for all Europeans”. Many observers expect the alliance between Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia (known as the Visegrád Group), to try to rein in European ambition on clean energy. But this year may be the start of something different, writes Manon Dufour, head of the Brussels office of independent think tank E3G.
On 27 February the European Council gathered in Brussels for their first debate on the Commission’s Clean Energy Package. Members of the Visegrád Group on this occasion issued a short joint statement raising “serious concerns regarding the very tight timeframe” of the negotiations, and stressing the importance of Member States’ right to freely determine their own energy mix.
The statement, which did not identify concrete issues of substance, did not come as a surprise. The four Visegrád countries are expected to try to restrict the EU’s climate ambitions as much as possible.
The Czech Republic is becoming more progressive as a result of domestic shifts. Its largest and most influential utility ČEZ is diversifying its portfolio towards renewables, storage and nuclear
But what many people don’t realise is that the positions of the four countries differ on many issues. For one thing, the authoritarian tendencies of the current Polish and Hungarian governments are antagonising the Czech Republic and Slovakia, amplifying the cracks in their political alliance.
Members of the group have been at odds before, for instance on the EU’s 2030 climate and energy targets in 2014 or more recently in their reactions to the UK’s EU referendum, which the Polish and Hungarian governments used to call for radical changes to the EU’s governing treaties. Slovakia and the Czech Republic, on the other hand, feel that it is far more valuable to align with the rest of the EU. These social democrat-led countries do not want to be associated with Poland’s and Hungary’s attacks on the rule of law, and are actively looking for new alliances.
The Polish government is very isolated on coal. Domestically, mainstream business voices such as the national employers’ association are calling on politicians to develop economic alternatives before the country’s moribund coal sector collapses.
E3G has released a new series of Climate & Energy Snapshot briefing papers on the energy policies of the Visegrád countries. They look beyond the strict negotiating positions these countries have adopted in the past to analyse recent shifts in their real economy, their domestic political and societal debates, as well as their positioning towards the European Union and its other member states. They also shed light on discrepancies between past negotiating positions on energy and climate and the national interest, and can help diplomats and influencers identify tracks for new alliances with these countries. For more information see E3G’s Central and Eastern Europe in Focus showcase.
Outside of Poland, the Czech Republic is becoming more progressive as a result of domestic shifts. Its largest and most influential utility ČEZ is diversifying its portfolio towards renewables, storage and nuclear, and is a vocal supporter of a stronger ETS. Hungary, on the other hand, remains very much aligned with Poland on climate and energy. However, this is in exchange for Poland’s backing on other issues such as migration and rule of law investigations, rather than by conviction.
Another important difference is that the Czech Republic and Hungary are well positioned to gain from the low-carbon transition – were they to decide to invest it in. Out of 128 countries, Czech Republic and Hungary are ranked 27th and 33rd on the 2016 Global Innovation index. This puts them among the most innovative CEE economies, far ahead of Poland which is only ranked 45th.
The Czech Republic in particular shows exceptional R&D and innovation capability in the CEE context. However the political framework for investments is unstable and not clearly geared towards low-carbon opportunities. In addition to climate concerns, air pollution and energy poverty are becoming wide-spread and thorny issues in the Visegrád countries, especially in Hungary and Poland.
Hungary has one the EU’s worst track records in terms of energy poverty, with 40% of households suffering from fuel poverty and spending more than 20% of their income on energy bills. Poland is gaining a reputation as the EU’s China when it comes to air pollution, and people have started taking to the streets in protest.
Such concerns are convincing many local authorities to develop low-emission plans focusing on energy efficiency and local renewables. While national politics are often more hostile, progress on the ground is making the benefits of climate action more palpable and could increase support for the low-carbon transition from citizens and cities.
Poland is gaining a reputation as the EU’s China when it comes to air pollution, and people have started taking to the streets in protest
What should also be kept in mind is that the Visegrád Group’s commitment to the European Union remains strong. Despite strong words flying from both sides, governments and populations in CEE member states remain supportive of the European Union. There is of course the attachment to EU money – 80% of Hungarian public investment between 2011 and 2013 came from EU funds, for instance – but it goes further.
At a time when global politics revive old geopolitical and energy security scares, the case for economic strength through the single market, for energy solidarity through the internal energy market, or even for unity in defence, is as compelling as ever. This limits the ability of the Visegrád countries to block EU energy and climate policy. They will need to be open to compromises. EU countries favouring ambitious climate policies should be able to use this knowledge to forge a consensus on a credible clean energy policy for Europe.