Which Energy Union? A vision of hope vs. the geopolitics of fear
The Energy Union is the next Big Idea of the EU which is supposed to breathe new life into a European project that has lost its appeal with citizens and national governments. At the moment, the Energy Union is an empty shell AND every lobby pushes its own individual product or technology. The tangible risk is that we will end up with a muddled mess.
The Energy Union is the next Big Idea of the EU. Nobody knows exactly what it is, only that it's supposed to breathe new life into a European project that has lost its appeal with citizens and national governments. The choices made by the Commission in the coming months will be crucial. An energy union built without public support will provoke a backlash that the EU can ill afford. Persuading people can be done in two ways. One is toxic, nasty and ultimately doomed. The other is inspiring, positive and sustainable. It’s the geopolitics of fear versus a vision of hope. We must choose the second way. Not because it is the only one that offers us a future worth living in, but also because it’s the only one where the EU is credible.
At the moment, the Energy Union is an empty shell AND every lobby pushes its own individual product or technology as the key to a successful future. The tangible risk is that we will end up with a muddled mess. At its heart, however, lies the idea of pooling together national energy policies, surrendering a further chunk of sovereignty in exchange for greater efficiency. This is a tough sell on a continent where anti-EU sentiments are rampant and nationalist and localism sentiments are on the rise. If the purpose of the union is unclear, and it translates, as it will, into big new infrastructures popping up in people’s backyards, it will become the perfect target for anti-EU propaganda. It will be seen as a new conspiracy, cooked up in smoke filled Brussels rooms, benefitting the hated financial and corporate elite, and undemocratically forced on hapless citizens. Demagogues will have field day. The backlash could be nasty, and the EU cannot afford it.
So the architects of the Energy Union must try to persuade citizens. This will require transparency, open debate and democratic involvement, even attention to our beloved birds, and it’s not yet clear that the Juncker/Sefcovic team is comfortable with such an approach. But more importantly, it will require a purpose. A “more efficient market” is not a plausible rallying cry in today’s Europe. As far as I can see, only two options are really on the table.
The first option is to play on the geopolitics of fear. The Russian threat to gas supplies and growing competition for resources from China and India can be portrayed as an existential threat. A touch of xenophobia that might just convince Europeans that they'd better stick together against the rest of the world. A union based on this premise will be a Gas Union, with emphasis on pipeline diplomacy and a global game for control of fossil fuels. Preventing climate change will be seen as a luxury we can’t really afford, energy efficiency as a good idea, but only if it doesn’t interfere too much with the business model of the energy giants we need to recruit on our side of the game. It is a global zero sum game; whatever we win, we’ll be taking away from someone else. And whoever burns the fossil fuels, the effect on climate and nature will be disastrous.
The second option is to offer people a vision of a deep and comprehensive energy transition that can create a sustainable, healthy and fair Europe. It’s a vision of a highly efficient economy that uses energy sparingly, and produces it from local renewable sources. It’s an electric Europe, where an internet-like grid allows citizens to produce their own energy but also allows movement of energy over time and space from where it is plentiful to where it is needed. It is an exciting vision of transformational technological change and a rediscovery of the social role that energy plays. In this vision, the enemies are climate change, pollution and energy poverty, not other people. It is a positive sum game. If we build a just and sustainable society, the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians, and the Arabs can all follow suit if they wish.
You will not be surprised that as an environmentalist, I prefer the second option. If we go for the first, we are heading for a world that is too nasty to even contemplate. But there is also a narrow political logic for taking the second option. It’s the only one that has a chance of appearing credible to citizens. Would the ‘man in the street’ believe the EU capable of winning against the rest of the world as a shrewd gas negotiator or tough international bully? Most people would laugh at the idea. Would national governments trust Brussels to keep the lights on and their citizens warm? They are already pouring resources into keeping idle capacity and strategic reserves of their own. The second vision is about creating ground breaking social and economic arrangements to create stability, progress and a better society, which other nations then want to join and emulate? Well, on that we at least have a track record running back more than half a century – it is what the EU has done since its creation.