Sefcovic tells MEPs he has a vision for EU’s Energy Union

Maroš Šef?ovi? will chair the trilaterals [European Parliament]

Maroš Šef?ovi? [European Parliament]

Maroš Šefčovič, the Slovak Commissioner-designate for the EU’s Energy Union, successfully defended his credentials for the post yesterday (20 October) in front of two parliamentary committees. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

In the new Juncker Commission, Šefčovič will coordinate the work of several Commissioners – for energy, climate action and transport – and most importantly, will be in charge of giving substance to the project of creating an Energy Union among the 28-member bloc.

The Slovak nominee was auditioned by two European Parliament committees – on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).

Šefčovič has won support in the European Parliament during his ongoing mandate as Commission Vice-President in charge of Inter-Institutional affairs. During his tenure, he focused on negotiating the Framework Agreement, a document which governs relations between the Commission, Parliament and Council. A former diplomat, he is affiliated to the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES).

Šefčovič was originally nominated for the post of Transport and Space. But Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker assigned him the Energy Union portfolio, after the withdrawal of the Slovenian ex-prime minister Alenka Bratušek, who failed her hearing.

>> Read: Juncker plans team reshuffle

Šefčovič’s original portfolio will be taken over by the new Slovenian candidate Violeta Bulc, a political newcomer who has trained as shaman and is able to walk on fire.

In his opening speech, Šef?ovi? presented the tasks assigned to him by Juncker – in English, Slovak and French. The performance strongly contrasted with Bratušek’s poor showing. In spite of having had only four days to prepare, Šefčovič offered a vision based on five pillars and clear arguments.

The future Energy Union, he argued, should ensure energy supply security and solidarity among the member states, integrate national energy markets, reduce European energy demand, decarbonise the energy mix and increase investments in to research and innovations.

Energy policy should offer a new, more assertive tool for negotiations with third countries such as Russia, the Slovak politician continued. “We import 53% of the required energy, spending €400 billion each year. Can we negotiate better prices? No, we can’t,” he said, referring to Gazprom’s divide-and-rule tactics in Europe.

Pro-Russia bias?

Several MEPs were concerned about Šefčovič’s presumed soft stance toward Russia. Šefčovič studied at Moscow University and was nominated by Slovakian Prime minister Robert Fico, who is opposing tougher sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

Responding to MEPs, Šefčovič did his best to clear those doubts. “Stress tests have shown that we are better prepared than in 2009,” he said. “Now we can help Ukraine, using the reverse flow [of gas]. Russia uses gas as a political weapon and that is unacceptable.”

To ensure supply security, the Slovak nominee said he would seek diversification of suppliers and greater interconnection of European networks in order to eliminate infrastructure bottlenecks and so-called “energy islands”. Priority will be given to projects listed in the annex of the Commission’s strategy to strengthen security of energy supply, he said.

In northern Europe, Šefčovič would like to better connect Finland and the Baltic states with the rest of the Europe. The EU will support gas exploration in Mediterranean and building LNG terminals to reconnect Cyprus and Malta, isolated energy islands.

Šefčovič said he would focus on reduction of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and support project, which allow us to reach suppliers in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other countries. “By supporting the South Stream project, we would only increase our dependence on Russia. We should rather support the Southern Corridor project, which will connect us with the Caspian Sea.“

Promotion of renewables

Šefčovič perceive renewable sources of energy as crucial to increase security of energy supply in Europe. “The sun is ours, the wind is ours. It is all European”.

The EU is already the leader in terms of renewable technologies. Up to 44% of all new installations in 2012 were in the EU. “Technologically speaking, we are at the top and no one disputes it. However, we must increase the share of renewables in the energy mix.” At the same time, Šefčovič confirmed the preservation of the prerogatives of the member states to decide their own energy mix.

Several MEPs consider the 27% renewables target, set by the Commission in the new climate and energy package 2030, as insufficient. Šefčovič said the target was indicative and that he believed that it will be exceeded. The Commission considers 27% the most cost-effective level.

According to Šefčovič, green politics and industry should supplement each other and not be mutually exclusive.  “Our businesses must not be jeopardized by the promotion of renewables and green technologies.“  Multi-national negotiations on environmental standards should be therefore a priority.

Šefčovič would also like to preserve the system of European industries protection against the so-called carbon leakage.

Energy efficiency and eco-design

One of the other measures to enhance energy security is to reduce European energy consumption. Up to 46% of all energy is annually spent on the heating and cooling of buildings. As a result, Šefčovič backs energy efficiency, which is set to 30% in the new 2030 package.

Most of the member states are not in favour of any mandatory targets for energy efficiency. “Efficiency has always been seen as something restrictive and regulatory. We need to creative incentives and motivate member states”.

In addition to the energy efficiency of buildings, Šefčovič wants to focus on eco-design of appliances. Similar ideas have been already criticised as overly bureaucratic and inefficient. “Huge energy savings can occur with the correct setting of products. You must help us to communicate this idea to the citizens,” he said.

International negotiation on climate change

Šefčovič wants to play an important role during the negotiations of a new, ambitious climate agreement. “You asked who would go and negotiate on the behalf on the EU at the international forum. I will go”.

Heads of governments will decide this week on a new climate and energy package for 2030. This framework agreement will determine the position of the EU during the negotiations in Lima and in Paris in 2015.

According to Šefčovič, the new agreement, which will replace the Kyoto protocol, is reachable. “We have positive signs from our partners. The USA adopted a number of legislative measures related to the power plants. China is testing the emission trading scheme used in Europe.“

Reduction of energy poverty

Several MEPs addressed the social issues deriving from the ever increasing energy prices. The level of wholesale energy prices in Europe are almost the same as in the US. However, the structure of energy prices for households does not reflect the cost of production, thus more and more citizens are thrown in to the so-called energy poverty.

Šefčovič proposed to firstly, complete the internal energy market, which should help to push prices down, and secondly, provide assistance to member states in finding the most appropriate mechanisms to support the most vulnerable groups. This can be done by direct subsidies, capping the prices and using resources from the European Social Fund.

Future of the candidate

Šefčovič should not have any troubles to be confirmed by the Parliament. He is widely popular, has the appropriate experience and the support of the largest fractions in the parliament.

In addition, at the beginning of the meeting, the chairman of the Industry Committee Jerzy Buzek confirmed that Commissioner Šefčovič “has qualified as a member of the College of Commissioners. Let us only concentrate on the new portfolio”.

Moreover, it seems that there is a wide spread hearings fatigue among the MEPs, which was reflected in the almost empty room.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President-elect, announced the distribution of portfolios among his new team on 10 September.

The next step in the procedure was the hearings of the commissioners in the European Parliament. During the two weeks of hearings between 29 September and 7 October, the 27 commissioners were interviewed by MEPs from relevant parliamentary commissions.

All except Slovenia’s Alenka Bratušek were accepted for the post of Commissioners, and Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics has been accepted as Commissioner, but not for the assigned portfolio, which includes citizenship.

  • 22 October: MEPs to vote the Juncker commission in plenary;
  • 1 November: Juncker commission takes up its duties.

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