Deadlocked energy savings talks restart as Bulgarians eye final deal

MEP Miroslav Poche is pessimistic that a deal can be reached anytime soon if member states do not start seriously compromising. [European Parliament]

Bulgaria’s EU presidency wants the European Parliament to put a compromise on the table during fresh talks on energy efficiency on Wednesday night (16 May) in order to unlock negotiations and close the file before July. But MEPs and member states still seem far apart on crucial aspects of energy savings.

Ahead of trilateral talks tonight, negotiators from the Commission, Council and Parliament met in what was billed as a ‘practice trilogue’ to hash out where each institution currently stands and provide clues on where compromises can be made.

Head of the Commission’s energy directorate, Dominique Ristori, insisted during the meeting, organised by the Coalition for Energy Savings, that lawmakers are “closer than ever” to a final deal on legislation (EED) that is considered to be crucial to the EU’s future energy plans.

But Czech MEP Miroslav Poche (S&D group), who represents the Parliament, said he was “more pessimistic” than his Commission and national counterparts and warned that compromises already tabled in April were effectively ignored by the Council.

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Bulgaria’s deputy energy minister, Zhecho Stankov, speaking of behalf of the Presidency, denied that accusation, revealing that member states have now granted Bulgaria a mandate to negotiate an overall energy efficiency target of “beyond 30%”; a previous redline.

That concession has been billed as a significant step forward and divisions now focus on whether the overall target should be binding, as well as the finer details of the all-important Article 7 on annual savings.

Stankov was clear that the best way forward is for negotiators to put something on the table, as “even less ambitious countries” are now ready to come up from their previously rigid positions.

Ristori acknowledged that the EU executive’s initial 30% binding proposal was “insufficient” and confirmed the Commission is now actively pushing for a higher target.

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To bind or not to bind?

Parliament and the Commission are both united in their position that the final deal should be binding, regardless of the figure attached but the Council is still split on the matter.

Stankov urged the Parliament to decide if the binding nature of the legislation is the most important aspect and to make its position clear in tonight’s talks, suggesting that there will be more room for manoeuvre if MEPs plump for non-binding.

Stefan Scheuer of the Coalition for Energy Savings acknowledged that even if the agreement ends up being indicative, at least Article 7 will be binding.

The energy expert added that a majority of countries that have already reported on energy savings under the current rules are on track and that investments are paying off.

However, Scheuer added that every percentage point for the target matters, as even a small increase has the potential to make massive savings across the board.

Rules dating from 2012 are non-binding and positive results could convince the Parliament to compromise on that aspect in order to push for more ambition in the nitty-gritty of the EED.

Flexible loopholes

Some of the sticking points are the flexibility of Article 7, exemptions from savings and whether transport can be excluded from baseline calculations.

Stefan Scheuer explained that the rationale behind excluding transport used to be the perceived difficulties in making energy savings in a notoriously problematic sector, where emissions continue to grow.

However, with advancements in e-mobility and the release of new proposed legislation on decarbonising transport, this excuse may no longer be valid.

Stankov refused to be drawn on which countries want to maintain the option or why, but sources told EURACTIV that the Presidency is ready to suggest a number of scenarios in which transport is included but with attached trade-offs for other exemptions.

The Council insists that differences between member states, including economic and geographical factors, mean flexibility must be granted in the implementation of Article 7.

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But WWF Europe’s Arianna Vitali said that “what the Council calls flexibility, NGOs call loopholes”, reiterating that the result of the negotiations must be in line with the EU’s obligations under the Paris Agreement.

That was a point echoed by Greens/EFA MEP Claude Turmes, who warned that a 30% target for both energy efficiency and renewables “cannot keep Europe within the Paris window”.

Sister laws

Energy efficiency is not confined just to its eponymous directive though. The governance file, also currently being negotiated, will deal with the legal aspects of the EED’s targets and provisions.

Benedek Jávor, the shadow rapporteur on the EED, told a briefing last week that “a strong governance file is needed to really push member states to implement the targets”, reiterating his support for binding goals.

An ambitious EED is also crucial to unlocking the full potential of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which will enter into force next month after the Council rubberstamped the final deal this week.

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After tonight’s trilogue, another meeting is scheduled for next week. If Bulgaria fails to build a large enough majority to broker an agreement, it will be up to the incoming Austrian Presidency to finish the job.

As the Commission prepares to come out with a net-zero emissions strategy for 2050, Berlaymont sources told EURACTIV that it is essential that the main parts of the 2016 Clean Energy Package be agreed before serious calculations begin.

As the EU executive apparently wants to be in a position to announce the mid-century plan by the COP24 summit later this year, it will be hoping to see progress tonight.

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