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04/12/2016

Member states reassert sovereignty over energy mix ahead of EU summit

UK & Europe

Member states reassert sovereignty over energy mix ahead of EU summit

Council President Donald Tusk organises and chairs EU summits. [European Council]

EXCLUSIVE / European Union governments have reasserted their authority over their national energy policies, before leaders meet to discuss the bloc’s plans for Energy Union on Thursday (19 March).

A more effective, flexible market design that will integrate renewables is needed, according to draft summit conclusions, obtained by EurActiv.

Any public energy subsidies at national level must not unbalance the internal market, the text says.

But the new design should ensure “the right of member states to decide their own energy mix is respected,” states the leaked paper, which is dated Monday 16 March.

In the weeks before the summit, diplomats thrash out a draft agreement, which is subject to change. EU heads of state and government usually agree on a set of political conclusions at the end of each European Council.

The reference to national sovereignty, added since the last draft, is significant. Especially as the latest conclusions now stress that national resources can add to energy security.

“Energy security can also be increased by having recourse to indigenous measures, as well as safe and sustainable low carbon technologies,” the new conclusions say.

Environmental campaigners fear this keeps the door open for national governments to frack for natural gas, and mine and use other fossil fuels. 

Safe and sustainable low carbon technologies could be code for nuclear power or natural gas, they warned. NGOs Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace EU told EurActiv the conclusions were a backwards step.

EU supervisor

The European Commission’s proposals for an Energy Union, tabled in February, aims to bolster the EU’s resilience to supply shortages by moving energy around the bloc to make up shortfalls. The initiative gained political impetus after the Ukraine crisis brutally exposed the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas, but will require an unprecedented level of cooperation between member states.

A future governance framework, to be developed in 2015-16, will likely give some supervisory powers to a pan-EU authority.

>> Read: Leak names ACER as Energy Union supervisor

The framework must be “reliable and transparent”, according to the draft conclusions. While dominated by Energy Union, the paper also outlines positions on Russia and Ukraine, Libya, Syria, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and boosting growth and jobs in the bloc.

UK and Poland

Sacrificing some national sovereignty over the energy mix was vital to create the Energy Union, MEP Claude Turmes told delegates at a conference in Brussels today (17 March).

“Come on! How can you build an Energy Union over the borders, if you won’t give up a millimetre on your national energy mix?” he asked at the EU Leading on Renewable Energy Policy event.

Turmes, a Green from Luxembourg, named the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Poland as the biggest culprits among member states jealously guarding their energy mix. Poland, whose former premier Donald Tusk is now European Council President, is keen to protect its coal and investigate fracking. France has an influential nuclear industry. 

The UK government has agreed to expand its Hinckley nuclear power plant and is keen to look into fracking. It also does not want to be seen as ceding any more powers to Brussels, especially in the run up to May’s national elections. The UK’s relationship with the EU is a major issue in that vote, which could lead to a “Brexit” referendum.

“The latest draft looks like a UK/Polish wish list for nuclear and fracking,” Brook Riley, campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said. 

“EU leaders will need to make big changes in favour of efficiency and renewables if they want to walk their talk on climate action and cost-effective energy policies,” he added. 

“The Netherlands and the UK have failed in their national renewables policies,” said Turmes. “Why should the bloc now follow them?,” he asked.

“We have been bullied by Mr Cameron and some of his ‘submarines’ in the European Commission,” Turmes said, before saying he hoped the British prime minister’s Conservatives would lose the May election.

Precedents

EU leaders, notably David Cameron, refused to accept binding national targets for renewables and energy efficiency at the October 2014 summit, in order to agree to the bloc’s 2030 climate and energy targets. Non-binding 27% goals were adopted in the conclusions instead.

Countries such as the United Kingdom and Poland insisted that national binding targets, beyond the 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction, were unacceptable infringements of their jurisdiction over their energy mixes.

Renewables and efficiency targets were made binding at EU-level, creating a need for an effective governance framework. That is expected to be part of the Energy Union project, which has developed beyond just security concerns to include the fight against climate change.

The previous greenhouse gas and renewables targets for 2020 were both binding at national level.

>> Read: EU leaders adopt ‘flexible’ climate and energy targets for 2030

Other developments

The leaders will discuss the possibility of some Member States buying gas collectively, as EurActiv has previously reported.

But the new conclusions stress that any such joint buying, must be “in full accordance with competition and World Trade Organisation rules”.

Western Member States have made that point before, but the inclusion of the condition in the conclusions is new.

The draft also calls on the European Commission to develop an energy and climate related technology development strategy, including in the next generation of renewables.

That reference to renewables and to the explicit need to “integrate” renewables into a revamped EU electrical market, reflects a push from some Member States, and the Commission, to ensure renewables were mentioned.

The Council secretariat’s guidelines for the conclusions, the first step, were criticised for not including renewables or energy efficiency. 

>> Read: Joint gas buying on EU leaders’ summit agenda

Both renewables and efficiency had a much stronger presence in the iteration of the conclusions leaked after EU energy ministers met in Brussels to give their feedback to the Commission communication on Energy Union, which was launched on 25 February. 

>> Read: Brussels toughens up on policing EU energy efficiency laws

Positions

Jonathan Gaventa, associate director at E3G said, “It sounds obvious, but the best way of improving Europe’s energy security is simply to use less energy. The European Commission’s proposals recognised this. However, the European Council seem to be refusing to recognise that efficiency is often a far cheaper way of ensuring security than subsidising expensive new pipelines and LNG terminals.“

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, said, “Business leaders firmly believe that an integrated and low-carbon Energy Union will deliver major economic benefits to Europe. But to unlock these opportunities, the business and investor community need clear and stable EU-wide regulatory signals. If we fall back into national positions now we will jeopardise the progress made over the past months in developing a resilient and reliable energy vision for Europe."

Background

When he was prime minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, spearheaded the idea of an EU Energy Union. The idea has since been taken up by the European Commission which nominated Maroš Šef?ovi?, Commission Vice-President in charge of Energy Union, to steer the project.

The communication was published on 25 February and includes an annex of “concrete proposals”, including legislation, decisions and analysis.

The Energy Union will cut across a number of policy sectors including energy, transport, research and innovation, foreign policy, regional and neighbourhood policy, trade and agriculture, according to the EU executive's plans. It will require an unprecedented level of cooperation between member states and a new EU-wide governance framework.

The Energy Union is the EU’s response to the Russian threat to its gas supplies. The majority of Russian gas imports to the EU, about 30% of its annual needs, goes through Ukraine. In 2009, Russia turned off the taps, causing shortages in the EU. 

Since then, the situation has worsened with the annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight by Russian backed separatists, and EU sanctions on Russia.

Plans for the Union have developed beyond questions of security of supply to encompass issues such as fighting climate change. 

>>Read: Our Energy Union coverage

Timeline

  • 19-20 March: EU leaders' summit
  • 2015-2016: Plans for Energy Union governance framework to be developed.

Further Reading