Basescu: European Green Deal risks pushing ‘two or three countries’ towards EU exit

"The Green Deal will require re-skilling, job losses and investment," says former Romanian President Traian Basescu, who warns that the €10 billion in EU funding currently envisaged for Romania's energy transition is "ridiculous". [EPA/DUMITRU DORU]

The European Green Deal “will definitely create tensions” inside the EU, and risks pushing “two or three countries” to leave the Union altogether, warns former Romanian President Traian Basescu, saying the real priority in Romania is to build new infrastructure like motorways and exploit natural gas resources from the Black Sea.

Traian Băsescu served for ten years as President of Romania and represented his country at EU summit meetings during that period (2004-2014). He currently sits in the European Parliament as an MEP for the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP). He answered in writing to EURACTIV’s questions.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Many EU countries do not have the financial resources required to meet the climate and clean energy objectives of the European Green Deal.
  • The EU’s current funding proposal for Romania is “ridiculous,” he says. “With €10 billion, it is impossible to close down the coal energy production in our country”.
  • “Our real priorities in Romania is to build infrastructure like motorways” and railways as well as modernising education and the healthcare system.
  • Romania “cannot compromise” these infrastructure projects for the Green Deal because they “are a key element” of the country’s development.
  • Such “discrepancies between EU and national priorities are likely to generate huge tensions inside the EU, which could lead to some countries considering the possibility of leaving the Union altogether.”
  • “It is only when we have more clarity and analyse the impact of the Green Deal on our economy that we will see whether the EU will remain united or will lose two or three members.”
  • “ExxonMobil and Lukoil are ready to exploit gas deposits” in the Black Sea, which Băsescu says will be essential to replace Romania’s coal power plants: “Without investing in its own gas projects, it will be impossible for Romania and other Member States to meet the new European carbon emissions targets.”

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As the former President of Romania, what is your opinion on the European Green Deal? Is it a convincing proposal for a country like Romania, which has one of the lowest GDP in the EU?

At this stage, the Green Deal is a political programme that will become credible only when accompanied by specific measures that take into account the diverse economies of the Member States. For the Green Deal to become a success, we need a reasonable balance between technology, the economy and social policy, which do not always have the same objectives.

But the problem is that the EU has set itself too many new priorities. Under the EU’s proposed new multiannual budget (2021-2027), new resources will be allocated to defence while Europe is also facing rising temperatures and a migration problem. The list of priorities is long and we will have to set our priorities in a rational way.

The Green Deal does not concern just one Member State but all 27 and approximately 120 partner countries with which the EU has international cooperation and commercial agreements. In this context, Romania must find the political and diplomatic capacity to put forward a realistic strategy that can help it to obtain as much EU financial support as possible.

If it recognises the specific characteristics of each EU Member State, the Green Deal will be beneficial and will truly stimulate the economy and social wellbeing. This can be a colossal project, which might indeed change not only our economy but also our way of life if it is properly financed without affecting traditional EU policies, such as the CAP and cohesion policy.

The European Commission must now put forward feasible proposals for the Green Deal. It is only when we have more clarity and analyse the impact of the Green Deal on our economy that we will see whether the EU will remain united or will lose two or three members.

You seem to suggest that the Green Deal could create tensions within the EU. Can you be more explicit? Are you actually warning that the Green Deal could lead to more countries following Britain and deciding to leave the EU?

Yes, it will definitely create tensions because I expect that at some point, the European Commission will impose sanctions within the Green Deal system.

At the same time, I am convinced that the costs of transforming the EU economy are higher than expected. Many countries will not have the resources needed to follow such a program, especially if we take into account their national priorities.

Let me take an example. Romania has 40% of its energy based on coal. According to the Green Deal, eliminating coal is an absolute priority but our real priorities in Romania is to build infrastructure like motorways, and the modernisation of railways, the healthcare system, and the education system. All these sectors are underfinanced.

No, we cannot compromise our infrastructure projects for an EU Green Deal, simply because these projects are a key element for our development.

Such discrepancies between EU and national priorities are likely to generate huge tensions inside the EU, which could lead to some countries considering the possibility of leaving the Union altogether.

We must realise that the Treaty of Lisbon introduced the decision-making process through qualified majority and that the EU will not keep functioning based on consensus much longer. That is why I anticipate that many decisions will be imposed through this voting system in the future.

Revolt brewing against EU’s ‘unrealistic’ climate goals

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has threatened to veto Europe’s goal of becoming the first climate neutral continent in the world by 2050, adding his voice to a growing chorus of discontent as EU leaders prepare for heated climate discussions at a summit in Brussels next week.

How much EU funding do you believe Romania should obtain as part of the Green Deal? Does the current proposal match your expectations?

No, I believe the current proposal, in what concerns Romania, is ridiculous. With €10 billion, it is impossible to close down the coal energy production in our country, which involves neutralising the power plants, requalifying over 20,000 workers in the mining industry, to create jobs in the region, and most importantly to substitute this energy with green energy.

Can you imagine the costs associated with these ambitions? They are much higher than what these €10 billion could cover. I fully agree that a country like Germany can follow such a plan but Romania must first invest and consolidate its infrastructure, without having to sacrifice its development for closing power plants.

How can the EU and Romania close this gap?

Over the next 10 years, the EU intends to spend €1,000 billion on the Green Deal and on making Europe carbon neutral by 2050. This is only an estimate. In my opinion, it will cost much more.

But what does a climate-neutral Europe mean? It will certainly not have the same meaning for everyone. The Green Deal will require re-skilling, job losses and investment. It means that we have to adapt to climate changes, avoid an increase in energy costs, halt sea erosion and prevent temperature rises that will trigger cardiac and respiratory disease epidemics and new waves of climate-induced immigration. All of these are connected to the Green Deal.

Moreover, there is a real risk of moving high-carbon manufacturing to countries outside the European Union, where CO2 emissions are not taxed, pushing up unemployment. At present, the EU already imports much more CO2 than it exports, meaning Europeans consume more greenhouse gases than they produce. We should focus on measures that lead to a realistic growth model and a fair society. For this Green Deal to be implemented, an appropriate EU budget is required.

Environmentally friendly or not, all investments need to take into account the risks involved. We need an impact assessment of the social and economic impact of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

We cannot set ourselves unrealistic goals and launch a Just Transition Fund, which is easily accessible only to those experienced in European funds, while creating the risk of destroying the cohesion and agriculture policies. We risk failing if we try to act on all fronts at the same time.

What can Romanian authorities do to obtain financial support to meet the objectives of the Green Deal? Are there any short-term measures Romania could take?

To obtain funding, you first need clear objectives. And we don’t have that clarity yet.

Generally, with a European policy, once you establish the objectives you also lay down the financial means. At the moment, the Green Deal is merely a political exercise by the Commission. It is the Commission’s responsibility to demonstrate that it can effectively contribute and that it can come up with smart solutions for all of its Member States.

When the Commission puts forward concrete proposals, Romania will need to set out its negotiating terms. It is an extremely important exercise, through which Romania must come up with its own low-carbon development strategy. The big question is: would Romania be able to develop such a strategy?

Romania risks losing 40% of its electric energy production capacity as a result of the decarbonisation programme laid down in the Green Deal. The Oltenia and Hunedoara power plants will be most affected.

In Romania, natural gas could help to ease the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy. Without investing in its own gas projects, it will be impossible for Romania and other Member States to meet the new European carbon emissions targets. In addition, nuclear energy should be taken seriously while maintaining high nuclear safety standards.

What Romania needs first and foremost is a clear roadmap for transitioning to a green industry that can deliver low carbon emissions targets, also through nuclear energy.

And, we must also stay consistent. If we force the steel industry to meet low emission targets while at the same time importing steel products from countries such as Turkey, India, China or Ukraine, which don’t observe the same standards, the climate won’t benefit and Europe’s efforts would be wasted.

We must have consistent and adopt policies that take into account those obstacles. Otherwise, the Green Deal risks becoming a mistake or an act of naivety against our country.

Worries over ‘fresh money’ as EU cooks up energy transition fund

Eastern EU countries, backed by trade unions, are putting pressure on EU leaders to come up with “fresh money” to support the energy transition in coal-dependent regions as part of a Green Deal due to be unveiled this week.

In what areas should Romania invest to meet the climate neutrality goal? Is enough attention being paid to adaptation measures in order to deal with the inevitable consequences of climate change?

Romania must invest in a number of areas. Imagine what a 2°C rise in temperature would mean: permanent drought, fires similar to those experienced by Australia and Southern Europe, millions of climate change immigrants. Think of the damage to our economies.

Irrespective of the area, we must know how to impose our national policy agenda and ensure that the EU understands why those areas need to be prioritised. We must highlight the areas of strategic importance for us and work together to obtain better funding that serves our national interests. In any event, we need consistent funding that will not turn us into prisoners of the Deal negotiation process.

Finally, EU legislation on taxation and sustainable financing is being prepared, and this will determine what sustainable funding means from an environmental point of view. At this stage, nuclear energy and natural gas have neither been included nor excluded from the agreement reached between the Council, Parliament and the Commission following their last trilogue on the green finance taxonomy.

This means that the battle has not been lost and that there is a real chance that investment in those industries may be classified as ‘green’ in the ongoing legislative process, which might benefit Romania.

What should the Romanian authorities do about the Oltenia power plant since much of the area depends on coal for its electricity supply?  

As regards the Oltenia power plant specifically, Romania must take all the necessary measures to reconvert the plant using Black Sea gas instead of coal.

Last but not least, Romania must restart the programme for developing hydroelectric power plants as well as wind and solar energy.

The government must draw up, as soon as possible, a new national climate change strategy and consider restructuring the power plants.

How do you see gas exploration projects in the Black Sea in light of the European Green Deal? Will those projects be stopped or will they go ahead?

The project goes ahead. Black Sea natural gas reserves amount to 200 billion cubic metres. These are confirmed reserves with the prospect of other discoveries in Romania’s exclusive economic zone.

The exploitation of gas in the Black Sea, which I hope will start in 2021-2022, would be able to almost double Romania’s gas production.

Companies such as ExxonMobil and Lukoil are ready to exploit gas deposits in the concession perimeters and to continue prospecting in all the other 8 perimeters that Romania has in its exclusive economic area.

The Commission must therefore support the Black Sea projects. The Green Deal could help the Black Sea region, and Romania must benefit from this opportunity.

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Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, surprised even environmentalists when she announced she would make climate policy the “hallmark” of her five-year mandate. Now comes the hard part: the delivery.

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