Pursuit of industrial competitiveness and renewable technologies must avoid a backlash from disengaged citizens.
While Europe’s energy union has kept it afloat during challenging times, marked by war on the continent, it is time to take a step back to address priorities and keep centrifugal force in check. The pursuit of industrial competitiveness, such as in clean technology, must have the public interest at its heart.
The current moment is crucial, as countries are updating their National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs). To ensure everyone benefits from the energy union, governments must make sure that, through these plans, they include their citizens in the design of the energy transition. This way the European Union can avoid leaving people behind and guarantee a smooth and just transition.
Opportunity to take stock
The annual ‘state of the energy union’ report provides a technical overview of the European Union’s strategy on energy. It presents statistics and policy developments as well as snapshots of the energy landscape for each member state. It is a testament to the EU’s power to stabilise and harmonise the market. It is also an opportunity for a stocktake, ensuring the right priorities are addressed.
As this year’s report, out today, will show, the EU and national governments have worked hard to prioritise energy security, amid fear of another winter’s energy costs cutting into Europe’s global competitiveness. The outcomes of the REPowerEU plan and its ancillary emergency measures will be celebrated, in conjunction with safe levels of gas storage, energy-demand reduction and an increase in the share of renewables. These figures may not however resonate with a population haunted by inflation and high energy bills.
The energy-union strategy has huge potential for the whole EU market and its people. The projected need for labour in wind power alone runs into hundreds of thousands of new jobs to be created by 2030. Independence from fossil fuels shields us from geopolitical snares and would bolster the EU’s diplomatic strength in international climate talks.
Energy-efficiency and sufficiency standards help to reduce costs for industry as well as households, particularly when supported by funding for efficiency, renovation, heat pumps and solar power. The energy-union measures in this area could together markedly improve member states’ balance of payments and support macro-economic resilience.
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Within the context of this co-ordination and harmonisation at EU level, energy-policy competences are national. And the 2023 ‘state of the energy union’ report coincides with revision of the NECPs, due to be submitted in June 2024—in turn coinciding with the elections to the European Parliament.
The available draft NECP revisions are like the hollowed-out centres of tourist cities: the infrastructure is there but real people are nowhere to be seen. The drafts might provide percentages for EU-wide gas-storage capacities, expected costs of investment in hydrogen and liquid-natural-gas assets and projected shares of sectoral energy demand—but, so far, the NECPs have failed to listen to the citizenry. They have largely been formulated without seeking—never mind incorporating—public views.
The vast majority (85 per cent) of Europeans support the transition to renewables. This legitimacy will however erode if administrations do not make an effort to involve citizens in the path to clean energy—from actively facilitating community and household energy solutions to engaging the public in bigger permitting decisions.
Moreover, the decarbonisation of our energy system and industries will require billions of euro of taxpayers’ money. It therefore not only makes sense but is just to listen to citizens and scientists, rather than to the lobbyists seeking to profit from the transition by promoting expensive and unrealistic solutions—whether these be nuclear, hydrogen or carbon capture and storage—which siphon money or political attention from more cost-effective, available alternatives.
Support for, and protection of, industry interests rang heavy in the State of the EU address last month by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The ‘state of the energy union’ is even less likely to be pitched to appeal to voters. But at the crossroads of Europe’s energy transition guaranteeing their support is crucial.
The energy transition is tangibly transforming Europeans’ homes and landscapes. It sparks discussions at dinner tables and gatherings of friends. Tuning in to these debates and heeding citizens’ voices early in decision-making can ensure long-lasting support for renewables and avoid potential backlash.
Conversely, excluding the public from these decisions could trigger a crisis of legitimacy for the EU. With the European Parliament elections just around the corner, this would not only be unwise but could boost Eurosceptics and the vested interests seeking to undermine the transition.