Without much exaggeration one can say, these were the most important elections to the European Parliament in the history of the European Union. First of all the wounds of the economic crisis have not healed completely yet. The high unemployment rate and the seemingly never-ending austerity policy in some EU member states increased the popularity of those parties, whose leaders offered simple, mostly national solutions to complicated problems. Secondly, these were the first elections since the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in December 2009. According to it the when deciding about the next President of the European Commission the leaders of the member states should take into consideration the results of the elections. As a result by casting their ballots on the 25 May European were also hoping to have decided about the successor of Manuel Barroso. Finally, the new Parliament and Commission will decide about the future of the European Energy and Climate Policy. Since the adoption of the Energy and Climate Package not much has happened in this regard. What we need now are ambitious CO2 emissions reduction targets that the EU will present as its contribution to combating climate change.
To provide companies investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency with investment security and not to stay behind other regions, the EU also has to urgently adopt energy and climate targets for year 2030. Although in January this year the Commission has already suggested some targets, they were not very ambitious. Nonetheless, as many times in the past, Poland is very hesitant to accept anything that would threaten the dominant position of its energy companies in the power sector. At the same time the crisis around Ukraine – another challenge for the new Commission - has shown again, that only a power system based on renewables, not fossil fuels imported from Russia, is a guarantee of energy security.
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The European Parliament has always been the most ambitious European institution as far the EU energy and climate targets were concerned. Back in 2000, when the Commission came up with the target of 22.1 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010, the European Parliament suggested increasing it to 23.5 per cent. A few years later, during the negotiations over the Energy and Climate Package in 2008 members of the Parliament suggested the goal of 25 per cent instead of the 20 per cent target already agreed upon by the Commission and the Council. Also in regards to the 2030 targets the Parliament set the bar higher than the Commission: In addition to the 40 per cent CO2 emissions reduction target the Commissions put on the table in January 2014, in its Resolution adopted two weeks later the Parliament has also suggested introducing binding targets for energy efficiency and increasing the renewable energy target from 27 to 30 per cent.
Similarly to all other suggestions of the European Parliament, probably also this resolution will be ignored by the Commission. But the ambitious targets are important nonetheless as they make the suggestions of the Commission look like a compromise between the ambitious proposals of the Parliament and the usually less enthusiastic position of the Council, and thus easier for some member states to accept. But the linkage between the biggest political group and the President of the Commission will make it much more difficult for the latter to ignore the will of the only democratically European institution. As a result the future of the European energy and climate policy depends largely on who will sit in the new Parliament in the period 2014-2019.
In theory the political groups in the European Parliament consist of members of national parties with similar political views. But especially in the area of energy and climate policy the MEPs decide much more often according to the national, not the party lines. A clear example are the MEPs from Poland: during the vote over energy and climate goals for 2030 all but one representatives from this country voted against the Parliament’s resolution. Among them also those from the Group of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which was one of the initiators of the Resolution. The resolution with the more ambitious energy and climate targets than those suggested by the Commission was also supported the Group of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), that German FDP belongs to. But this didn’t hinder half of the FDP members from Germany to vote against the position adopted by their political group.
Different groups, different interests
But despite many MEPs voting more according to national than party lines, there are clear differences between different political groups. The European People’s Party (EPP), which despite the loss of 60 seats will be the biggest political group in the new Parliament, underlined in its program the need to tackle the threat of climate change, but failed to describe in more details what measures exactly should be taken. The European Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which in the new Parliament will be represented by 191 MEPs, is more concrete in this regard. In its election manifest from March 2014 it stressed the need to introduce binding targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. It also presented the idea of implementing “Project Bonds” to finance good investments in the green economy, renewable energy.
Keeping in mind the rather limited support for renewable energy by FDP in Germany, the lecture of the European liberals and democrats (ALDE), that FDP belongs to, may spring a few surprises. Development of renewables-based, distributed power system is one of the key points of the group’s program. Mainly due to the very bad result of the German FDP the group will now be represented in the new Parliament by 64 MEPs, 19 less than earlier.
Much less surprising is the position of the European Greens. A strong opposition against nuclear energy and support for a “Green New Deal” instead of complaining about alleged “deindustrialization” of the European economy were the hallmarks of the party. In the new Parliament this party will be represented by 52 MEPs, five less than before.
In addition to Christian Democrats (EPP), Social Democrats (S&D), Liberals (ALDE) and Greens, in the new Parliament there will also be 230 MEPs, largely Euro skeptics, populists and radical right or left wing politicians. Most of them will join the existing political groups. One of them is the European Union Left/Nordic Green Left Group (GUE/NGL). Although rather radical in other policy fields, in the area of energy and climate policy it often takes similar position as the European Greens. According to it green, sustainable development is the only way out of the economic crisis. Mainly due to the very good result of the Greek left wing SYRIZA party this group will now be represented by 45 MEPs, 10 more than earlier.
The situation looks much more complicated at the far right side of the political spectrum. For the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD) such issues like climate change and sustainable development play rather secondary role. But there is a huge difference between these two groups in this regard: Whereas ECR argues, that it is necessary to develop low-carbon energy sources, such as “renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage (CCS)”, the more radical and populist EFD threatens with a massive black out in UK due to the EU’s energy and climate policy. According to Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the most visible representative of this political group, climate change is a folly and the 0.7 Degrees Celsius Temperature increase over the last century is nothing unusual. Further, UKIP’s Leaflet “Keeping the Lights on” argues, that each job created in the renewable energy sector leads to 4 jobs lost elsewhere. With 27.5 per cent votes in the UK the UKIP will now send 24 MEPs, who will join the EFD group in the European Parliament.
There are also a number of other MEPs, who were either not member of any political group in the previous term, or will join the Parliament for the first time. This is the case of Front National led by Marine le Pen, which as the surprising winner in France will now send 24 MEPs to the new Parliament – 21 MEPs more than earlier. In Poland a party called New Right, led by Jan Korwin-Mikke, whose goal is to dismantle the European Union and introduce in Poland a monarchy, will send to Strasbourg four representatives. For the first time also a member of the German neo-Nazi party NPD, which received over 300 thousands votes, will be sitting in the European Parliament. Although due to difference of opinions within the Euro skeptic camp they will not have a significant impact on the policy-making process, it may seem like a paradox, that their anti-European activities will be generously financed from the European budget.
The new Commission
The main innovation of the elections to the European Parliament was supposed to be the fact, that by choosing a particular party, Europeans could also decide who the next President of the European Commission will be. But how close the link between the result of the elections and the allocation of positions in the new Commission should be was not quite clear. According to the Lisbon Treaty, when deciding about the composition of the new Commission the heads of states should take into consideration the results of the elections to the European Parliament. Before the elections there was a widespread agreement, that the frontrunner of the winning party will be nominated by the Council for the position of the Commission’s President. As a result a number of debates between the frontrunners of the main political groups took place in which they presented what they would do as the next leader of the second most powerful European institution.
The surprise was big when two days after the elections Angela Merkel pointed out visibly upset, that the results of the elections do not automatically indicate who the next President of the Commission would be. Possibly her position on this issue has been influenced by strong opposition of the UK’s Prime Minister to choosing the leader of the winning EPP Group, Jean-Claude Juncker, on this position. But giving more weight to the opinion of a leader of a country, which is not sure it wants to stay in the EU, than to the votes of millions of Europeans could increase the popularity of Euro skeptics criticizing the EU for its lack of democracy and transparency.
Regardless of who will be nominated as the next President of the European Commission, he and his Commission will have enormous impact on the European energy and climate policy in the coming years. A lot in this respect depends on who will replace Günther Oettinger as the next Energy Commissioner for energy. One of the possible candidates is Jan Krzysztof Bielecki former Prime Minister of Poland and currently a close advisor and good friend of Donald Tusk. According to Bielecki, keeping the current share of lignite and hard coal in the Polish power sector would be the most optimal energy mix. To optimize the costs the share of renewables should be kept at the minimum possible level and nuclear is the cheapest low carbon sources of power. Should a person like him become the next Energy Commissioner, European energy and climate policy would be thrown back to the 1970s, when coal and nuclear were perceived as the guarantee of the European energy security.
The Europeans have made their choice. During their meeting in Brussels on 26 and 27 June the leaders of the member states will have to make theirs. Seldom were the stakes higher as far the European energy and climate policy and the future of the European democracy is concerned.
Dr. Andrzej Ancygier is a Research Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance and Lecturer at the New York University. He specializes in European energy and climate policy.