The Energy Union- feasible or fairytale?

August 15, 2017

Contrary to what certain politicians claim, climate change isn’t a hoax. There is enough empirical evidence to support this claim. A part of the changes that the climate undergoes are natural - there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat throughout the past 650,000 years alone, much before humans reached the current technological and industrial thresholds that accounted for rocketing carbon dioxide levels and other unwelcome changes in the climate today. Sea levels are rising, the emission of greenhouse gases is too. The unpredictability and extent of natural disasters due to climate change and global warming has resulted in the extinction of certain species of animals, endangered essential natural habitats, and has even displaced millions of people from their homes. We are far from a perfect solution to this issue, but it is safe to say that the countries are trying. No single country can be responsible for ‘solving’ climate change. Thus, we have the Paris Agreement, we’ve attempted the Copenhagen Agreement in the past, as well as we tried implementing the Kyoto Protocol. However, if there’s any lesson we’ve learned from the evolution of international and global pacts and treaties, it’s that leadership matters. There are certainly some countries whose membership decides, to an extent, the success of the pact. The European Union is certainly among these.


One of the many ways countries are tackling climate change is by decarbonizing the economy and finding ways to make the energy sector cleaner, more efficient and sustainable. This is listed as a priority by the European Commission, following the 2015 adoption of the ‘Framework Strategy for a resilient Energy Union with a Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy’, which underlines the EU’s ambition to attain ‘secure, sustainable, competitive, affordable energy for every European’. The question remains - how realistic is the Energy Union?


Like every other issue the EU is facing, energy is not free from the influence of national and international politics. A key political transition taking place in many European countries is the rise of right-wing populism. Politicians who use populist propaganda to gain votes have succeeded in sparking nationalist sentiment among political and social communities alike. One of the biggest challenges the Energy Union faces are the strong national interests of member states. For example, last winter, many European countries witnessed some of the lowest temperatures in decades. While the energy Union asks for governments to work together to help each other cope with issues of energy shortages by exporting and importing energy from neighboring countries, this seldom happened. When Bulgaria faced harsh negative temperatures and asked its neighbor Romania for extra electricity, the Romanian government came up with a one month emergency plan that allows it to cut energy exports if needed. In other words, that’s a diplomatic ‘No’. In many European countries, this obstacle was toughened due to upcoming elections. It’s simple - if the demand for power is growing at home, and if politicians prioritize an Energy Union to support other countries, they lose votes. In the words of Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, one of the toughest challenges is that countries tend to act in favor of national interests and not EU interests.


But the problem is more complicated than just that. Keep in mind that there are inequalities between the “Core” European countries and peripheral ones. With varying levels of industrial development, natural resources, already existing energy scarcity and national consumption, pushing for greater co-operation and coordination becomes difficult. While the Central European countries can afford to chase the goal of Energy security for the entire Union, weaker countries such as Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, all of whom cut down on energy exports, find it hard to prioritize European solidarity over national security.  Although an Energy Union promises numerous profits in the long run for all countries that participate, no country will prioritize collective profit over the needs of its own citizens. This situation is mirrored in various other European Union issues, namely terrorism, migration and financial crises.


One of the most controversial events which reinstates both the challenges stated above is that of the German plans to build the German-Russian Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that seemingly contradicts the Energy Union. On the one hand, the Energy Union aims at making the EU more self-sufficient with energy resources by reducing dependency on Russia (some European countries have heavily relied on Russian natural gas or energy and still do) and the foreign policy of many European countries, including Germany, have supported the sanction regime against Russia. On the other hand, the Nord Stream Project contradicts both the ideas. This further proves the fact that EU countries, at least with regards to the Energy Union, still find it difficult forego national interests, especially when the EU does not have enough accessible natural gas mining fields on its own territories.  


The other major controversy around the Energy Union is the feasibility of its proposals. Take, for example, the proposal that describes the supply of gas to Eastern European countries that, as mentioned, currently rely heavily on Russian supplies. Is it possible for Germany’s fast-developing energy sector and France’s nuclear experts to speak “with one voice” with energy hungry Bulgarians? Obviously, the voices will be different. As Germany is being criticized for its contradictory foreign policies regarding the Nord Stream 2 project, it is very beneficial for Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Greece and the like to maintain energy deals with Russia. They have done so since the time of the former Soviet Union.  And today they have more of a reason to do so- the public outrage in the case of a politician selling out national sovereignty by choosing an expensive, idealistic Brussels proposal for the Energy Union over a cheaper solution more in line with national security would mean risking popular support.


Ultimately, all the controversy around the Energy Union boils down to the complications of collective action. Cooperation is possible - but how far will countries go to cooperate, when it comes at the expense of national interests? The Energy Union, if successful, would prove to be an important model for the rest of the world- that is, if it manages to overcome the problem of collective action. But the European Union faces inequalities in development, energy security, technological facets and many other sectors, which make the Energy Union something close to an idealistic fairytale.

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