MEPs gathered for their first reading vote in plenary yesterday (18 June) on the Commission's proposal concerning the EU's internal market in electricity. A sizeable majority - 449 in favour and 204 against - backed a report drafted by UK Socialist MEP Eluned Morgan. Morgan's report, endorsed by the Industry Committee in May, backs ownership unbundling as the only option for liberalising the EU's electricity sector (EurActiv 07/08/08).
In a statement published after the vote, Morgan accused the Commission of bending to the will of a minority of member states, and affirmed the Parliament's intention to push forward with full ownership unbundling.
"You've backtracked. We haven't," she said.
The vote puts Parliament at odds with the Council, which reached a general agreement on a 'third way' alternative to ownership unbundling based on a joint Commission and Slovene EU Presidency compromise (EurActiv 10/06/08). It also eliminates the possibility of a first-reading agreement, as requested by EU heads of state during the European Council in March, raising the spectre of an indefinite delay.
The French government, which is among the eight member states that oppose full ownership unbundling, takes over the EU's six-month rotating presidency on 1 July. Faced with an extremely busy agenda that has been weighed down further by Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, there are concerns among EU diplomats that Paris will not give enough attention to the liberalisation file (EurActiv 06/06/08).
But both Parliament and Council have also indicated their desire to wrap up talks before the end of Parliament's legislature in March 2009.
In addition, the European Council has given the French EU Presidency a clear mandate to tackle the issue. And despite her pledge to push ahead with unbundling, Morgan indicated at a press conference following the vote that she is "ready to negotiate" on the third way option.
This position was backed by fellow MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish Christian Democrat whose report on the establishment of a new agency to regulate energy markets was also endorsed in plenary yesterday.
The MEPs are making it clear, however, that any potential deal with the Council on the third way will depend on at least two conditions: that the third way option is 'effective' from the perspective of fair competition and market access, and that transmission system operators (TSOs), who control electricity distribution through the grids, are truly independent from electricity producers.
The gas vote
Negotiations between the two sides are unlikely to begin in earnest until after Parliament votes in July on a separate proposal concerning the EU's internal market for gas.
Unlike for the electricity sector, MEPs in the Industry Committee in May said they could support exceptions to full ownership unbundling in the gas sector (EurActiv 20/05/08). An endorsement by the plenary of this kind of 'separate' treatment for gas could give a boost to supporters of the third way in the electricity sector, while a negative plenary vote could weigh in favour of full unbundling.
The impact of the gas vote on the electricity file may ultimately prove to be limited, however. The Parliament's criteria with respect to effective separation and TSO independence have not been clearly defined and remain subject to detailed negotiations with member states at expert level, according to a Commission source close to the file.
If the two sides cannot agree relatively quickly on precise measures that would satisfy both proponents and opponents of full unbundling, the issue may be dragged into conciliation, the source said.
The Parliament is also calling for a number of measures designed to protect energy consumers, including impoverished sectors of society that are struggling with rising fossil fuel and related electricity costs.
Consumers should be allowed to change energy suppliers within two weeks and be permitted to withdraw from contracts without penalty, according to the Parliament. National authorities should also be able to impose temporary price caps "in uncompetitive markets for a defined and limited period".