A Sovereign Europe?

Carlos Maravall Rodríguez

7 mins - 20 de Septiembre de 2023, 07:00

Last autumn-winter 2022-23, the European Union experienced the biggest challenge in energy policy since it was created. Beginning in the summer of 2021, Russia, the largest energy supplier to an energy-poor continent, was restricting gas to volumes that were miniscule for the EU as a whole compared to the past. Panicking to secure gas supplies for households and businesses during autumn and winter, in August 2022 market operators pushed European gas price references to an all-time high in Europe... and the world (339€/MWh). This prompted the EU to adopt very significant intervention measures in the energy markets. These measures, provided for in the Treaties as temporary (Article 122 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) and justified by an exceptional situation, have gone further than the policies initially proposed to achieve the Energy Union. For example, since last February, the Union has had the power to limit bids that push gas prices to peaks that are on justifiable grounds.

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But what exactly did Europe do in this context? Who is responsible for ensuring that the electricity and gas supplies were never cut off? First of all, it is worth remembering that such an interruption of supply did not take place even in circumstances as dramatic, if not more so, than those experienced in Australia (a net energy exporter) or California (a Mecca for technologists) in the past, where power cuts did occur. Like heroic scenes from the Second World War, the Union turned the page on the past winter thanks in part to the landing of ships with liquefied natural gas in the United Kingdom, which was then supplied to the Union through the multiple pipelines that cross the English Channel. The United States was also among the countries that played a significant role in supplying gas to Europe during this time – although to a lesser extent than Norway, the EU’s main supplier in 2022 and today.

To whom, then, does Europe owe its hide, to whom has it incurred unpayable debts that will condition its future, limit its ability to move, and “pay” for having been saved at a time of maximum vulnerability? In four words: everyone and no one. At a time when we have once again been challenged to decide, once and for all, what we want to be when we grow old, we have chosen, once again, to go our own way and weave our own destiny. And in the process of seeking alliances and points of agreement, we have done so with the confidence of someone who feels, and is, free and autonomous. Europe is not solely responsible for the international order that allows us to enjoy such freedom and autonomy, but it is certainly benefiting from it.

Looking ahead, and faced with the need to resort to solutions on which there is little consensus among the citizens of the Union (for instance a Fiscal Union), it is worth recalling the words of Robert Schuman in May 1950: “Europe will not be built all at once, nor in a comprehensive project: it will be built through concrete achievements, which will first create a de facto solidarity”.

Let us take another example. Last March the Commission proposed a reform of the electricity market, one of the greatest achievements of the single market that kept the Union alive last winter. Among other things, the aim is to pass on to the final consumer the lower cost of the most efficient electricity generation technologies. Spain stands to benefit greatly from such a reform: it enjoys huge resources to generate renewable energy, where some of the most efficient technologies on the market are already available.

Anticipating such success, albeit partial, Spain has already adopted a significant number of initiatives, some hand-in-hand with the EU. For example, component nine of the recovery and resilience plan contains a bottom-up development of the renewable hydrogen industry. Specifically, it includes measures to support SMEs, innovative value chain developments, pioneering projects to anticipate the deployment of such an industry, hydrogen valleys to showcase such advancements and, as a conclusion to all of this, the installation of up to 500 megawatts of electrolysers by mid-2026. With the addendum to the plan, the expectation is that such initiatives will go further.

For this reason, and regardless of the reform of the electricity market, we must continue to work to ensure that the price of gas and electricity continue to be linked. At the very least, by ensuring that the huge profit margins generated when gas prices soar are used in an optimal way, not only from the point of view of the private sector. In this respect, the Commission has already proposed a significant number of initiatives to redistribute such margins in the light of the extraordinary lived situation. For example, it proposed a cap on electricity producers’ revenues when the wholesale price was above 180MWh; or a temporary solidarity contribution for surpluses generated by companies operating crude oil, natural gas, coal, and/or refining.

Looking ahead, the signals shown by the market are clear. Our electricity utilities are optimally positioned to invest, albeit indirectly, in the infra-marginal generation technologies that generate such benefits and even the production of the inputs they need: chips, solar panels, electrolysers, batteries, etc. In short, the strategic net zero emission technologies identified by the Commission to strengthen Europe in the face of possible new dependencies on Russia, China, etc. Such investments are already taking place in Italy, for example: ENEL is directly involved in the largest solar panel production plant in the Union. So, if there is no investment, the problem is perhaps a different one: whether there is sufficient competition in the electricity market.

I conclude by reaffirming the need for Europe to stand on its own feet as best it can. Much of America’s economic take-off over the last twenty-five years has been due to a small group of technology companies. They have been able to take advantage of the telecoms operators’ inability to keep their finger on the pulse of what goes on their networks: content, commercial exploitation of the web, and so on. If, on the other hand, electricity companies can set the pulse on the electricity market, and continue to have a fundamental role to play, thanks to the fact that the price of gas and electricity continue not to be twinned, perhaps our objective should not be for them to achieve a high stock market price like Apple, but to ensure that in Europe we learnt the lesson of sovereignty that we faced during the autumn-winter of 2022-23.
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