MEPs question EU's energy strategy in the Balkans

  

MEPs and local NGOs worry that that the European Commission is bypassing civil society and environmental rules as it devises an energy strategy for the Western Balkan region.

Energy ministers from the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine are meeting tomorrow (18 October) to draw up a strategy for the region.

The European Commission chairs the task force in charge of the overall strategy, which is put together as part of an EU cooperation treaty for the Balkans and Ukraine, known as the Energy Community. Other task forces under the treaty deal with energy efficiency, renewables and the environment.

The regional strategy task force recently came under fire, as four MEPs and several NGOs filed multiple complaints to the Commission for a lack of transparency in drawing up the strategy and for its limited environmental targets.

The four MEPs include Maria Eleni Koppa (Socialists and Democrats, Greece), Eduard Kukan (Christian Democrat, Slovakia) Jelko Kacin (Liberals, Slovenia) and Franziska Brantner (Greens, Germany).

Explaining the strategy to EurActiv, Marlene Holzner, spokesperson for the European Commission's directorate in charge of energy, said: “The two main underlying reasons urging the drafting of this document [the regional energy strategy] were the anticipated gap between power supply and demand in the coming decade in the Energy Community, and hence the high level of investment needs in energy infrastructure development”. 

The strategy represents a descriptive summary of existing data and commitments, Holzner said. “It is not the task of the strategy to evaluate or judge this data or the commitments. Moreover, the strategy does not aim at constituting new commitments beyond the existing ones.”

NGOs claim transparency shortfall

The opaque nature of the strategy has raised objections from NGOs and MEPs. Although civil society organisations were consulted, they were not provided with a draft of the strategy before they could provide their feedback.

The draft regional strategy paper was published on the website of the Energy Community on 27 July 2012. At that point they were told the consultation process was "closed". The only way they could give their input was by completing an internet-based questionnaire in April 2012.

“We believe that an internet-based questionnaire is not an adequate medium for receiving a comprehensive input by the stakeholders, including civil society organisations,” the four MEPs wrote in their letter.

“My main concern is the opaque way in which the Energy Community has drawn up the draft strategy," Brantner said. "Civil society and parliamentarians haven't been properly consulted during the process despite the fact that the strategy will have an important impact on the energy and environmental landscape of the region for years to come,” she added.

Commenting on the questionnaire, Garret Tankosic Kelly of SEE Change Net, a regional think tank, said: “None of our feedback was included in the document when it was finally released and no explanation was given as to why, or not, comments were deemed relevant or not.”

Kelly also picked on the phrase the task force included in the draft strategy: “When it comes to updating or developing new national strategies, such strategies should align with this strategy”. He said this formulation dismisses any future civil society debate at national level in the future.

“It looks like a way of muzzling national-level public participation,” Kelly said.

The four MEPs also sent a letter to Slavtcho Neykov, the Director of the Energy Community Secretariat, on 11 July 2012. 

'Transforming the Balkans in a transit zone'

Regional NGOs complained that the energy efficiency targets included in the regional energy strategy are “ridiculously low”, compared to the existing opportunities in the area.

The strategy sets a 9% energy saving target by 2020, relative to the 2009 reference year.

“As we pointed out to Commissioner Oettinger, we consider that the draft strategy falls far short of the EU environmental standards,” Slovenian MEP Kacin said.

“The strategy proposes plans that are not in line with the EU's plans to decarbonise the economy, and their focus is on fossil fuels, new oil and gas pipelines to extract and export energy and to transform the Balkans into a transit zone, without specific benefits for the countries involved,” Ionut Apostol, of green NGO CEE Bankwatch Network said, adding that the draft focuses too exclusively on short-term goals.

“It is excellent that the EU and the Contracting Parties target a common market under the same rules,” Neykov said.

“However, when it comes to projects’ developments, further to the governments and the regulators, one should not forget the business, as in the end it is mostly the business which will invest,” he added.

He said that while specific actions such as setting individual smart meters in homes “could hardly be a subject of a regional strategy”, the draft proposal examines what is required at minimum to fully meet consumer energy demand.

'More an investment strategy'

NGOs and the signatory MEPs believe that the energy strategy “needs to set firm foundations for regional energy cooperation and high environmental standards” and claim that the task force is more focused on attracting investment than anything else.

“At the social forum in Montenegro (on 11 and 12 September), Neykov actually stated that in truth it was more of an investment strategy than anything else, Kelly said.

But Neykov reassured EurActiv that, whilst any of the countries within the Energy Community is free to use coal-fired power plants and choose their own energy mix, they must respect the relevant EU environmental requirements.

The Commission's spokesperson for energy Marlene Holzner said, however, that not all EU targets and goals are applicable to the Energy Community. The Energy Community is progressively adopting the EU legislation related to energy, environment and competition, Holzner explained.

But NGOs said that the Energy Community subscribed, in its treaty, to implementing a series of EU acquis, which, so far, have not been respected. They particularly pointed to the breach by the strategy of the EU directive providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment.

MEPs continue the battle

“Among other things, we plan to bring together energy experts from the region and the Commission to a public hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels in the coming weeks,” Kacin said, referring to the other three MEPs signatories of the complaint letters.

“The question of energy supply and its impact on people and the environment is a vital one for the Western Balkans, in particular considering the increasing demand for energy in the region. I will therefore continue to follow this issue closely,” Brantner said.

Positions: 

Internet-based questionnaires are one element of a public consultation process but are in themselves by no means sufficient. A proper process must include for instance stakeholder meetings, access for the public to the necessary information in due time and the inclusion of parliaments in the preparatory work,” Green German MEP Franziska Brantner said.

The way the Energy Community Secretariat involves the public in its work should be raised in the European Parliament,” she added.

Whether sustainability or renewables are going to be addressed in the Strategy – I have to recall that this is not for the Secretariat to decide. The Strategy itself points out some of these barriers in the Conclusions’ section; nevertheless, in the further work along the Strategy, I have no doubt that the steps towards streamlining the authorization and licensing process will continue. The regulatory authorities of the Contracting Parties have already concrete common activities in this direction,” Slavtcho Neykov, the Director of the Energy Community Secretariat.

The Energy Strategy is a 74-page document which covers a number of political, economic and environmental issues. I find it rather hard to image that anyone could put forward substantial and comprehensive proposals and suggestions through this medium. Especially bearing in mind that the EC Secretariat hadn't provided the Draft Strategy which the CSOs could analyze and then comment on; in other words, the CSOs were supposed provide meaningful input trough a word-limited questionnaire that covered only certain topics, while at the same time they were not informed of the content of Strategy,” Liberal Slovenian MEP Jelko Kacin said.

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