While some are reacting with shock and others with enthusiasm, the EU Commission has responded with a single sentence to the British announcement that the UK will be building new nuclear reactors: on the question of the energy mix, the member states have sole responsibility. It’s in the EU treaties: be it from nuclear reactors, gas and coal, or from windmills and solar grids, how a country produces its power is up that country alone. The Commission, as mere guardian of the treaties, has no say in the decision. No one in Brussels, in any case, has been surprised by the news. After all, the British have been signaling for a long time now that the country intends to roll out nuclear power in the fight against climate change. End of debate.
Of course, this is only half of the truth. If the British want to subsidise the construction of nuclear power plants, EU Commissioner for Competition Joaquín Almunia must at least take another look at the plans. All the same, the Commission and Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger have allowed an opportunity to go to waste. As a matter of urgency, the EU should hold a debate about how it can ensure that the energy policies of the member states are better coordinated. In light of the changes in the British and German energy policies, it’s time to let actions follow up on the repeated lip service to “more Europe” in the energy policies of member states.
This does not mean simply handing over sovereignty in the energy mix to the EU institutions. Notwithstanding the entrenchment of the EU, there are good reasons for competency on that question to remain in national capitals. Energy policy is security policy. What proves this better than the constant game that Russian President Putin plays with the gas-cocks to Europe?. It is already clear that Putin will again use the gas supply as a weapon if Ukraine shifts too much closer to the Europeans at the EU summit in Vilnius in November. So long as there is no common European security policy, the supply of industry and consumers with power is too important to be left in the hands of foreigners – that is, in the hands of Brussels.
Competition among systems – the debate over the best mix of energy – may also be fruitful. The Commission’s oversight of competition usually ensures that this competition is not distorted by excessive subsidies. Why should the EU force the British down the German path towards a nuclear phase-out – from the British point of view, a costly exercise in naivete? And why should the EU force the Germans to choose the British path back towards nuclear power – from the German point of view, a risky exercise in naivete? It remains to be shown whether wind and sun can deliver security of supply and the hoped-for jobs in “green” industries, or whether the industry will shift to Britain in the end. Or even whether Poland will win the race with its controversial shale gas gambit. Greenhouse gas emissions, it must be mentioned, will be lower under all three models.
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