Oettinger defends European vision on energy

Germany’s Günther Oettinger, who has been nominated for the European Commission’s energy portfolio, sought to prove his European credentials at his confirmation hearing by outlining plans to enforce energy solidarity and spelling an end to bilateral energy deals with suppliers such as Russia.

The commissioner-designate eased through the cross-fire at the European Parliament by presenting a European vision of energy policy. 

In future, energy supply contracts signed by individual member states with third countries would be replaced by European treaties, he said.

“I hope to win over the governments on this,” Oettinger said, stressing that that the EU should be in charge of negotiations. 

Germany’s bilateral deal with Russia on the Nord Stream gas pipeline raised criticism in Poland and the Baltic states, which feared that Russia could then bypass pipelines that run through Poland. The outrage grew when former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who had pushed hard for the deal, joined Nord Stream’s board.

But Oettinger pledged to enforce the principle of solidarity on energy policy contained in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty so that no member state could be left disadvantaged. He said he was prepared to work with lawmakers on how binding solidarity measures could “work in practice”.

“I think it requires legal measures,” he confirmed in response to probes from members of the Parliament who wanted to hear concrete initiatives.

Three pillars

The commissioner-designate said he would work with the new powers given to the EU in the Lisbon Treaty to achieve three main pillars: competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability.

“Over the next five years I want to contribute, with you, towards a Europeanisation of our energy policy,” he told MEPs. However, he said Europeanisation would be limited by the fact that regional authorities have a say in EU decision-making. 

The MEPs applauded his choice of priorities, which had already become buzzwords under his predecessor Andris Piebalgs, but questioned his commitment to Europe. They demanded assurances that the Baden-Württemberg premier was committed to putting aside the interests of the big power utilities he has worked closely with in his current job.

Green MEP Claude Turmes cited a potential conflict of interest given the personal relationships Oettinger entertains with the chief executives of E.ON and RWE. Moreover, the incoming commissioner raised concerns about his resolve to promote competition in energy markets, as Germany appeared hesitant about splitting up the assets and infrastructure of energy giants under the EU’s third energy liberalisation package.

“We must find the midway between too much regulation and too little,” Oettinger replied. But he pointed out that he does not own any shares in RWE or E.ON and vowed to have always maintained his independence.

Top marks on green energy

Oettinger struck a chord with MEPs by basing his security of supply strategy equally on diversifying gas transportation routes from third countries and promoting indigenous renewable energy.

He stressed the importance of the Nabucco pipeline in counterbalancing reliance on Russian gas, as import volumes from the EU’s eastern neighbour are set to increase with the construction of the Nord Stream Baltic Sea pipeline. In addition, connecting Europe’s energy islands to the main energy network and the construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals would continue under his tenure.

But Oettinger had also done his homework on renewable energy, underlying Europe’s role in building transportation capacity. He said that a European super grid that can transport solar power from the Mediterranean as well as offshore wind electricity from the North Sea would be part of budget negotiations.

He promised to make energy efficiency and renewables priorities when planning funding.

Binding energy efficiency goal on the agenda

The incoming commissioner committed to proposing a binding energy efficiency target, but only if the currently voluntary approach fails. 

“I’m prepared to talk to you about a legally binding goal in two years if we don’t achieve the results on a voluntary basis,” he said.

He also promised to present data and facts about the EU’s energy efficiency action plan in the spring and bring out a new detailed plan at the beginning of next year at the latest. The updated action plan was originally in the pipeline of the outgoing Commission.

Nuclear to remain national prerogative

Oettinger was grilled on his stance on nuclear energy by MEPs, who have been advocating a shift to renewables as a more sustainable form of low-carbon energy. 

As premier of Baden Württemberg, the German was lobbying to keep nuclear power plants open at a time when the German government was phasing out its atomic energy generation.

Despite previously stressing a stronger EU role in energy policy, Oettinger was very clear that decisions regarding nuclear power generation would remain with national governments.

The German commissioner-hopeful reiterated his vision for nuclear over the course of the hearing.

“The term of our nuclear plants should be extended as technology improves,” the energy commissioner-designate said. 

Oettinger said that although his country Germany sees nuclear as a bridging technology, he has no reservations against France’s plans to build more nuclear capacity nor Austria’s decision to abandon the technology altogether.

“The EU-level is important in terms of research and advice,” he said, adding that the Union would concentrate setting the highest technically feasible safety standards. 

Green MEP Claude Turmes (Luxembourg) greeted Oettinger's strong performance in advocating en environmentally responsible EU energy policy.

"Oettinger showed real commitment in his speech in the European Parliament. Action must now follow his green words. He must show strength of character and keep a professional distance from his personal friends E.ON boss Wulf Bernotat and RWE boss Jürgen Großmann. The Greens will be keeping close watch to see if his political actions are consistent with the statements he made today," he said.

MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras (EPP, Spain) was convinced that Oettinger had secured support across the political groups with his "clear vision of a truly European energy strategy".  

"Günther Oettinger has defined the right priorities. The environment and the economy must go together. At the same time, Europe must become more independent from energy imports," he said.

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Günther Oettinger was nominated as Germany's choice of European commissioner. The 56-year old politician has been prime minister of the Baden Württemberg region since 2005.

Oettinger was allocated the heavy energy portfolio, which is set to grow in importance after the Lisbon Treaty gave the EU full competences in the area. He comes to the job without any previous European experience.

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