Some time ago I was able to address a question on energy prices to Miguel Arias Cañete, described as “Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy”. His only response was to suggest the completion of a single EU energy market, which I described as “fiddling at the margin”.
On Monday January 26th, I attended a meeting of the ITRE Committee in Brussels, and had an opportunity to question Maros Sefcovic, a Commissioner and a Vice President (no less) of the Commission. I put essentially the same question to him, but with a summary of the huge damage which energy prices are doing to European competitiveness, driving jobs and investment out of Europe altogether.
Sefcovic at first did not reply (he’d had questions from each of the political groups), but the Chairman, the excellent Jerzy Buzek reminded him to do so.
As a more senior Commissioner, he made a better hand of the answer than Cañete – but still failed to reach the nub of the problem. He offered four ideas:
The single market in energy: This was Cañete’s point. Of course the market would be more efficient with (for example) more interconnectors, enabling demand to be balanced over a wider area, and eliminating “energy islands”. But it doesn’t start to address the underlying point of very expensive generation overlaid by massive regulatory and tax costs.
“Getting the carbon price right – and completing the MSR“. But of course what he means by “getting the carbon price right” is increased energy prices, which will make matters worse rather than better. And the whole object of the MSR is to increase the cost of CO2 emissions – making things worse again.
Regulatory certainty: Sefcovic says that a major barrier to investment in new energy infrastructure, or in energy-intensive industries, is regulatory uncertainty. Of course he’s absolutely right on that – and I’m constantly banging on about it myself. But Sefcovic doesn’t explain how it’s to be done, given that each new Commissioner, and each new Chair of the European Council (and at the member state level, each new Minister) will want to make his name by introducing his pet ideas. And regulatory certainly, while highly desirable, again does not address the issue of expensive generation.
“More efficient products”. High energy costs will help European businesses to design energy efficient products which will give them an edge in export markets, quoth Mr. Sefcovic. But Commissioner, we’re not talking about products for export. We’re talking about the impact of high energy prices on steel and aluminium production, on petroleum refineries, on chemicals and glass and cement for use in the EU itself – which are currently being replaced by lower-cost imports from other countries with realistic energy costs.
So again, the term “fiddling at the margin” comes to mind. All these ideas are worthwhile and should be pursued, but they utterly fail to address the underlying problem – that as a matter of deliberate policy we have introduced regulations and taxes and subsidies and feed-in tariffs and capacity payments and so on, which have the effect of making energy prices hopelessly uncompetitive.
But that’s the EU for you. Don’t expect serious answers to serious questions.