Diplomatic power: The EU’s ambitious new energy strategy

The EU can protect its energy security in the long term by transforming its approach to green diplomacy

Offshore wind turbines, Ostend, Belgium
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Energy ministers in the European Union have a tough job. They face at least three daunting challenges: how to rapidly reduce energy dependence on Russia, with a view to imposing an embargo on Russian oil and, possibly, gas that EU member states can support; how to build new partnerships with third countries around green tech and critical raw materials, to protect European energy security in the long term; and how to implement the measures in the Fit for 55 package that can bring the European Green Deal to life. All three challenges are closely related to the rise in energy prices in Europe and require significant investment in their own right – in infrastructure, in welfare support to help struggling households and businesses, and in political and diplomatic commitment.

Last week, the European Commission launched its International Energy Strategy, which includes the REPowerEU plan. The plan sets out an ambitious narrative that the EU can have it all – a climate transition away from fossil fuels, an energy transition to diversify its suppliers, and manageable energy prices. It centres on the five goals of energy efficiency, geographical diversification of the EU’s energy dependencies, an accelerating transition to clean energy, smart investment, and increased preparedness for future energy shocks.

If EU energy ministers are to meet the challenges they face, they will need to work with their foreign ministry colleagues

Aside from energy efficiency (which relies on reductions in consumption within the EU), these goals will only be achievable through a transformation of the EU’s relationships with countries in its neighbourhood. Accordingly, they will redefine the union’s foreign policy priorities. If EU energy ministers are to meet the challenges they face, they will need to work with their foreign ministry colleagues: all the external arms of the EU – in all the relevant institutions in Brussels and member state capitals – should engage with REPowerEU.

Even if the EU does not impose further sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, the new plan will have major implications for its relationships with key energy suppliers. The eventual fall in demand for fossil fuels resulting from Europe’s transition to renewables will have an impact on global oil and gas markets, reducing energy exporters’ revenues in the long term.

A greener Europe will also be more dependent on imports of the products and raw materials that serve as inputs for clean technologies. For example, rare-earth elements, of which China is the largest producer, are essential to battery production.

The EU needs a foreign policy strategy to manage all these efforts, to build the political resolve to manage the geopolitical dimension of the European Green Deal, and to use diplomacy to guide sustainable financing for climate adaptation and resilience. European leaders should urgently work with their counterparts in the EU’s neighbourhood to develop a concept of energy security focused on clean and transition fuels, as well as industrial transformation. Actors such as China, Turkey, Russia, and the United States are all competing for access to Africa’s minerals and clean energy resources. If the EU takes too long to strengthen its partnership with the African Union, this will heighten the risk of African economies falling prey to an extractive model that hampers the green transition even as the rest of the world profits. The EU also urgently needs to understand REPowerEU’s implications for the dynamics of cooperation between member states and their key energy suppliers.

Initiatives to implement the plan are currently limited by European institutional capacity and a lack of collaboration between EU entities. This includes coordination between EU institutions in Brussels and member state capitals, as well as that in third countries between EU delegations and national embassies, to ensure that energy and climate diplomacy is central to the promotion of European interests abroad. The EU needs to increase the number of personnel who work on the implementation of a green grand bargain within ministries of foreign affairs and the European External Action Service, and should ensure that European diplomats who work on energy and climate issues understand the economics of green development. Brussels and member state governments should reinforce these efforts with contributions from all relevant departments, including those responsible for energy, the environment, finance, trade, agriculture, transport, and development.

The vision set out in REPowerEU is only the first step in transforming the EU’s energy strategy. Its implementation will require a wholescale renovation of European leaders’ approach to climate and energy diplomacy. As such, REPowerEU should help shape the structure of the next European Commission (which will take office in 2024) – and should push the European Council to ensure that member states are engaged and empowered in this new way of working. The stakes are high: Europe needs a form of diplomacy that can support sustainable energy security. If the EU cannot address such a pressing need in turbulent times, citizens will question its value.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Director, European Power programme

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