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Emmanuel Dunand (AFP)

Facing a changing EU energy security policy and communicating it efficiently

Radu Magdin

31 de Mayo de 2022, 10:30

At a time in which the European Union was showing more ambition than ever in the quest to advance an green transition that placed the bloc’s energy security at its core, the outbreak of Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine triggered spikes in global energy prices. These now call for the EU's leadership on both fronts: streamlining and upholding plans on energy transition, while safeguarding the European economy, which vastly relies on energy-intensive sectors. Brussels moved quickly to propose new measures, which in turn call for different degrees of flexibility in each member state. Now shaken by the strategic shock of war and already subject to hybrid war elements, the European public opinion is likely to turn its back against national and EU leaders alike. Considering this set of challenges, energy security must become a matter of strategic communication both inside and outside the bloc's borders.  

With an economy already affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by an energy crisis deepened by the Russian Federation's decision to invade Ukraine, the EU's overall resilience is being tested. Energy security is today at the top of the European Commission’s agenda, calling for indisputable evidence of local, regional and global leadership. Under normal market conditions, the European Union imported around 90% of its natural gas consumption (out of a total of about 400 billion cubic metres), with the Russian Federation supplying about 40% of the EU’s total gas consumption (about 45% of imports). Ukraine continues to hold an important role in the regional energy equation, as the main transit route for natural gas from the Russian Federation to Europe. 

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The war in Ukraine, however, has placed the sustainability of this situation under scrutiny, considering both the rising energy prices and the question of EU sanctions -and the actual compromise that can be reached among member states, in a way that EU citizens understand and accept the sacrifices needed to be made.
The European institutions responded very fast with support packages and measures for final consumers, in order to overcome a virulent rise in prices. At the same time, EU bodies recognize the difficulties faced by industries and the significant impact on the economies of member states, which has led to the coagulation of two opposing streams of opinion in terms of the opportunity to continue energy imports from the Russian Federation. On the one hand, the EU can’t easily give up on all oil and gas imports from Russia, because it does not have other sources in the short-term, and on the other hand, this represents the reason why Russia is maintaining its illegal military activity in Ukraine, since the EU is still financing it. Adding to this mix is pro-Kremlin disinformation, which has suggested, among other things, that seeking energy independence from Russia would lead to a "climate catastrophe"

In this context, to make up for the gas imported from Russia, the European Commission's current strategy focuses on the following two main components: (a) diversification of gas supply through more imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and imports through pipelines from suppliers other than Russia; (b) faster reduction of dependence on fossil fuels in homes, buildings and industry, as well as in the power system. Based on all its actions, the RePowerEU package proposes a mix between identifying alternatives to fossil fuels imported from Russia and accelerating investment in the renewable energy sector, whether we are discussing the gas or electricity industries. The measures in the REPowerEU Plan revolve around energy savings, diversification of energy supplies, and accelerated roll-out of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels in homes, industry and power generation. 

The Commission also relies on the fact that 85% of Europeans currently believe that the EU should reduce its dependency on Russian gas and oil as soon as possible to support Ukraine. Yet such strong support is not a given and should not be treated as such, positive communication on the matter being as important as ever. Before Ukraine, the European Union and its member states set themselves a series of ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and supporting the green transition in the Green Deal -also included in the European Climate Pact adopted in 2021. These ambitions are confronted with real challenges, the endangerment of the security of our entire continent, in the traditional sense, but also in the broader sense, which includes energy security. In response to the difficulties reported by the member states concerning the green transition, the Commission has adapted and approved earlier this year the Complementary Delegated Climate Act. It thus decided that natural gas and nuclear energy will play a transitional role from coal to green energy, in the coming years, to help member states implement reforms that support the green transition in the best possible way for their specific needs.

Subject to accelerating the energy transition -as a means of achieving an adequate degree of energy autonomy- Brussels is nevertheless aware of the importance of the role and substitution of fossil fuels imported from Russia. Although the Commission remains in line with the European Climate Pact (a key milestone in its climate and energy policies), it still needs to identify short and long-term alternative sources and routes for importing fossil fuels and also to eliminate its dependence from Russia. But at the EU level, it will be more difficult to rely on a stable source of gas. Therefore, new partnerships with countries such as Israel, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Qatar (actions also consistent with RePowerEU's goal to find a substitute for Russian gas) were established by the EU as alternative sources of energy, in particular natural gas. 

Whether we are referring to the measures proposed in recent RePowerEU or to rethinking the principles of the security of supply regulation, recent European policies have partially addressed the issue of natural gas liquidity. Thus, according to energy experts, regulating this segment of the business could have an even more adverse effect than expected by the European institutions, by interfering with the free market mechanism and even causing unwanted increases in gas prices. Such challenges are already leaving policy-making laboratories and expert settings, becoming a matter of debate for a regular public that is more than ever of the changes which must be made to eventually stop Russia without risking the further escalation of the aggression against Ukraine. 

It is already very challenging for the member states to adapt their policies immediately, especially those that have already embarked on an ambitious path to change and modernise the whole energy sector. The energy sector, which is in the process of transitioning to green energy, has reached a crossroads: on the one hand, we face the challenge of 'decarbonizing' our energy systems, and on the other hand, we need to ensure the security of energy supply at an affordable cost to the final consumer. Even under these temporary conditions, we need to take seriously the issue of a sustainable and equitable green transition and medium and long-term energy independence. 

The political and security stakes of these movements need to be better explained, because now security, in the classical sense, is the first and foremost priority. It is therefore necessary for the leaders who support this direction of accelerated transition to rely on strong narratives, targeting as many concerns as possible. For example, a conflict on our borders is a reason for us to look more closely at energy independence, but given the economic costs we have to bear in the aftermath of the war, will we be also able to bear the additional costs of rapidly gaining energy independence as markets break new records every day? Crisis containment and growth should be tackled from a practical, results-oriented perspective, but also from a strategic communication angle. 

Russia's armed conflict in Ukraine may deepen, in a relatively short time, the economic problems that Europe has as an entity, but also individual concerns, which should be addressed, from the offset, through better communication. Above all, the energy transition needs to be accompanied by strong messages: the promise of security in the foreseeable future, the opportunity to regain our confidence in ourselves and our abilities, the possibility -for a country like Romania, for example- of assuming a regional leadership role in this area, the need for long-term, continued and undivided solidarity in the context of the war in Ukraine.
(Here, the Spanish version)
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