The European Union imports a little more than 50% of its energy resources. In this situation, no one should be surprised to see the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, alongside the Energy Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger. Foreign policy has come to dominate energy talks and vice versa. This became even more evident at the EU’s Energy Summit in Brussels on Feb. 4th, 2011.
In pursuing the objective of “safe, secure, sustainable and affordable energy contributing to European competitiveness”, the Energy Summit reviewed several initiatives for the achievement of progress. The inclusion of the European External Action Service, and the integration of Commission and Council mechanisms becomes immediately apparent.
The EU’s energy imports come from a wide range of countries. Starting from the Eastern neighbor, Russia, moving through the Caspian region and the Middle East, and ending up in Northern Africa, it becomes apparent that the 27 member states have to deal with a wide variety of states when discussing energy. It is this diversity of suppliers which brought Baroness Ashton to stand next to Commissioner Oettinger and demand that EU leaders give them a stronger mandate for energy negotiations with Russia, Turkey, the Caspian states and North Africa. As a result, “the Commission is invited to submit a communication on security of supply and international cooperation aimed at further improving the consistency and coherence of the EU’s external action in the field of energy” by June 2011. Also, the High Representative was asked to take into full account issues of energy security in conducting her work, especially in the context of the EU Neighborhood Policy.
Furthermore, one cannot overlook internal EU developments. In a rather obscure way, one of the conclusions of the Summit states: “The EU and its Member States will promote investment in renewables and safe and sustainable low carbon technologies”. Promoting investment in renewable energy sources has been an integral part of the EU’s legislation since 2009, when the member states had to submit action plans for developing such sources. Yet, the reference to ‘safe and sustainable low-carbon technologies’ is less clear. The implicit meaning of this concept is opening the door for developing nuclear power, and the main culprit – France. The large number of nuclear power plants in the country means that a large proportion of electricity generation already comes from a non-renewable, yet sustainable source. Critics of this clause have expressed a concern of allowing such sources to surpass renewable targets, but the EU has answered that this will not be allowed to happen.
Another important element discussed at the Summit was energy efficiency. It has recently become apparent that the 20% target set for 2020 is not on track. Recent estimates show that only 10% can be achieved in the next 9 years. Yet, with the goal of enhancing sustainability at low cost, the Commission and Council are asked to work together for the adoption of a new Energy Efficiency Plan, outlining policies and measures for the whole energy chain. Special attention has been given to public buildings and services, which need to be adapted.
A further discussion of the completion of the internal market also dominated the Summit. The idea is that the internal energy market has to be completed by 2014. This requires an acceleration of work to standardize the member states’ networks (through market coupling etc.) and to implement a common framework of technical standards. This would mean that, in 2014, gas and electricity should be able to flow freely across national borders. Yet, the major obstacle to this remains the modernization of Europe’s energy grid, which includes the construction of connections between states. The final objective: “No EU Member State should remain isolated from the European gas and electricity networks after 2015 or see its energy security jeopardized by lack of the appropriate connections”. The key to success: the Commission’s investment capabilities.
The overall picture which came to light at the Energy Summit is optimistic, and at the same time disturbing. There is common agreement that a common policy towards external suppliers is needed, but the diversity of these suppliers means the inclusion of the External Action Service in energy policy. Geo-political strategy is evident in this respect. Yet, although there is also common agreement that renewables have to be developed and the internal market completed, the internal discussion over what constitutes a proper energy mix and the mechanisms for development of infrastructure remains obscure. National interests always play a role in such a discussion, and one can only hope that the Commission can moderate the more extreme views. The EU’s internal geo-politics comes into play here.