Can the EU import energy and promote democracy?
15 September 2011, European Voice
New approach to energy deals could cause some problems.
Much of the media coverage of the European Commission’s proposals for a more coherent European approach towards energy providers outside the bloc focused on the main points presented by Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, in his press conference on 8 September (“Commission wants more EU control in energy deals”, 8-14 September): member states should be transparent about the energy deals that they negotiate with third countries, the Commission is to be given a role in such negotiations, and the EU should aim to operate in unison in the face of external suppliers.
All of this is important, since, as the communication states, Europe imports over 60% of its gas and over 80% of its oil, and it is certainly worth debating whether acting together as a bloc could indeed make imports for each of the member states more secure.
This discussion misses the point, however. What needs much greater scrutiny is the communication’s outline of how the EU can become more effective in securing oil, gas and even nuclear-energy imports from countries outside the bloc, even in cases when supplier countries are ruled by autocratic leaders.
At a time when the EU is seeking both to make its economy greener and to promote democracy in the newly liberated countries of the Arab world, this communication sets in stone benchmarks for Europe’s energy future that directly contradict its own aims.
One refers to what kind of energy Europe is importing. The EU has committed itself to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050. Member states are also working on gradually replacing fossil fuels with green sources of energy and, after the Fukushima disaster, countries such as Germany and Italy have also said ‘No’ to nuclear energy.
But the communication is heavily focused on securing oil, gas and even nuclear-energy sources from countries outside the bloc. For instance, the EU plans to import electricity produced by nuclear plants in Ukraine, and the communication stresses improving the Ukrainian transmission lines for the purpose of importing electricity. Increasing your dependency on foreign, finite fossil-fuel sources is a risky strategy. It is a costly option (many pipelines and supply routes, such as the Nabucco pipeline, still have to be built) that may lock the EU into a destructive fossil-fuel consumption pattern and remove incentives to invest in sustainable alternatives.
The second problematic aspect of the communication is that the EU would continue to import energy from countries with autocratic leaderships: Azerbaijan and even Turkmenistan are specifically mentioned. Oettinger has claimed that co-operation with authoritarian leaderships can play a role in the democratisation process. Yet in Libya, European companies co-operated with the regime of Muammar Qaddafi for decades in the energy sector with zero contribution to democratisation. Similarly, in Azerbaijan, a country whose citizens have seen freedoms actually decline since the EU started importing oil from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, such energy deals seem to have strengthened the authoritarian regime, by providing it with valuable sources of income.
The questions remain: how can we continue to import oil, gas and nuclear into Europe while claiming to be world leaders in the fight against climate change, and why do we dare to claim that making energy deals with authoritarian governments will promote democracy just moments after we have all witnessed that this is only an illusion?
Theme: Energy & climate