During an informal meeting of EU energy ministers, the European Commission agreed to produce a report presenting a definition of vulnerable energy customers.
The meeting, convened by Paul Magnette, Belgian climate and energy minister, saw a rare debate on energy poverty on Monday (6 September) and pledged to follow up on the issue during the 2 December Energy Council, when the Commission report is to be scrutinised.
"This was the first time in 10 years that the issue of consumers was directly addressed by energy ministers," said Magnette.
The Belgian EU Presidency chose to tackle the topic now as 2010 is the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. Energy poverty is an everyday problem for over 50 million Europeans who are estimated to be unable to pay their energy bills and maintain comfortable living standards, Magnette said.
The idea is not to harmonise social policy, which is for the most part a national competence, Magnette told journalists after the two-day meeting. But he said the EU must acknowledge the problem and see whether there is a need to propose a new piece of legislation or change existing measures.
The Commission report will also include proposals on producing harmonised statistics at EU level to help develop better ways to quantify the extent of energy poverty in the Union. Moreover, it will list existing and future EU energy policies which are likely to affect how consumers' interests are taken into account in energy policy.
Finally, Magnette suggested convening a roundtable of energy ombudsmen from around Europe to discuss whether programmes in place in one member state could be useful in others.
Monique Goyens, director-general of European consumer organisation BEUC, who was invited to speak at the meeting, criticised the EU's third energy liberalisation package for failing to produce concrete benefits for energy consumers.
The electricity and gas directives in the package agreed last year state that member states must define the concept of vulnerable customers and ensure adequate energy supplies, for instance by prohibiting disconnecting such customers at critical times (EurActiv 25/03/09).
The legislation further guarantees consumers the right to change their gas and electricity supplier within three weeks free of charge and to have access to more information, independent mechanisms for treating complaints and compensation for service failures.
"It is an appalling matter of fact that after the liberalisation of the energy markets, many energy suppliers, instead of abiding to the rules of a truly competitive market, use liberalisation to engage in most aggressive marketing practices, such as hard pressure selling of energy subscriptions," said Goyens.
"This shows that to be competitive, markets need strong regulation. It is time now for the energy sector to focus on delivering to its customers," she added.