"I believe that the structure of the EU is strong enough to allow for the continuation of its energy plan. There will be much discussion about the future of Europe, but I do not think this debate will affect the energy policy". This is how Andris Piebalgs, former European Energy Commissioner, during the Barroso Commission and current Senior Fellow at the Florence School of Regulation, within the European University Institute, sees energy prospects in a Europe is facing many criticism, but yet it is solid. Piebalgs discusses the Energy Union, gas, climate and the European role in Africa.
Do you think the EU as we know it has a future, or we need it to re-think it completely?
It is nearly three years since I left the European Commission. In this time I have been actively involved in the national politics and I can confirm, that there is no alternative to the European Union project. It brought and continues to bring peace and prosperity to Europe. It is a union of values and it preserves the cultural diversity in Europe. I believe that the next few years will bring changes and challenges. Particularly with more integration in the Eurozone countries and a stronger co-operation in the defense matters. Still I don’t expect serious institutional changes. I deeply regret, that on the 29th of March 2019 the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. The current dynamics allows me to believe, however that the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be beneficial to both sides.
Andris Piebalgs is an experienced Latvian politician who occupied key positions in both national and European political fields. During the first Barroso Commission, starting in November 2004, he was the European Commissioner for Energy. In that capacity, he led the development of a more competitive, sustainable and secure European energy system, which is one of the crowning achievements of the Barroso I Commission. In recognition of his leadership in European energy policy, The Economist magazine honoured him with the title "Eurocrat of the Year" in 2007. He is currently Senior Fellow at the School of Regulations in Florence, which is part of the European University Institute.
Do you think the current uncertainties linked to the future of the EU will negatively affect its domestic energy transition agenda and how?
I believe the EU structure is robust enough to proceed with the established energy agenda. There will be much debate about the future of Europe, but I don’t see it influencing the energy policy. The main drivers of the energy policy in Europe nowadays are fight against climate change and the technological development. We are in the global competition. The EU can’t afford to be slow in the energy transition agenda.
How would you evaluate the EU countries' move toward building an energy union? Are they forward looking enough in juggling national priorities and the need to move on, as Europe, collectively?
The good news are that the EU’s economy is growing even faster than the US economy and the EU as the whole is on the path to reach their 2020 policy goals. Also European Commission’s proposal "Clean energy to all Europeans" is advancing well in the legislative process. There has been a strong development in the EU market for electricity and the competition is getting stronger in the liberalised gas markets. However some developments could be faster. There are some worrying developments too. For example: strong preservation of coal for power generation in some countries, in some cases slow development in energy efficiency, delays in the construction of the interconnections between the Member States and some strong disagreements about the external energy policy. However I think that these contradictions are temporary. With the development of the EU wide energy market and coming into force of the new ETS legislation, the developments will be far less contradictory.
Electricity generation from gas matched generation from goal in the OECD for the first time ever in 2016. Do you think Europe is on track to sustainably decarbonise its energy mix while staying competitive globally?
I would expect a faster growth in electricity generation from gas compared to the generation from coal because it has a better carbon footprint. The development of the shale gas production gives an increased access to competitively priced natural gas. In addition strong developments in the renewables provide a good chance for a gas-based generation to provide the necessary back up. The challenge today is the low carbon price. In this situation I believe that European Commission’s proposal to limit emissions in the power generators used for capacity mechanisms is an important step in the right direction.
The US backing off from Paris agreement has been said to provide the EU with the chance to enhance its leadership in combating climate change. Has the EU currently the stamina to pursue this goal?
The EU has a strong position in support of the Paris agreement. It has been crucial in keeping on track the global fight against the climate change. This political signal should be strongly supported by staying on track with the ambitious domestic goals, aid to the developing countries in their climate policies and a strong technological development. Time will show if the EU will be the leader. Where there is a political will, there is also a way. And the economic growth in the EU is helping to achieve these goals. However the US contribution is needed to achieve current climate goals. The reaction of many stakeholders in the US gives hope that US climate policies will change sooner than later. In the meantime it is crucial to engage with the US, where possible. For example, there is a strong cooperation between the cities.
Building industrial scale energy capacity is often seen as wholly separate policy goal than increasing access to energy for African people. Is this realism or bias? Based on your experience as Commissioner for both Energy and Development, how do you see these two agendas reunited under an integrated endeavour?
Most of the African economies are growing fast with the increased demand for energy. At the same time hundreds of millions of people have no access to electricity. Modern technologies don’t require building an expensive grid to provide access to electricity. Still in many countries you can find particular focus only on megawatts created. It is important to be reminded that all UN countries subscribed to the Sustainable Development Goals that envisage universal access to electricity by 2030. I believe that in the current situation the development partners should focus their energy programmes to the rural areas in support of the governments’ energy access goals.
Do you see a potential for energy-focused EU development policy in Africa to have an impact on sub-Saharian migration towards the EU?
The access to affordable and sustainable energy supply is an important step in the process of leaving poverty behind and increasing peoples’ quality of life. Most of the migrants from sub-Saharan countries embark on that dangerous route, because of poverty and hopelessness, expecting something better during their lifetimes. Energy poverty is definitely not the only cause of that migration. I believe that good governance, human rights, democracy and social programs are highly imperative. However strong energy pillar in the EU development policy will have a positive impact on the chances of young people to succeed in their countries of birth.