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A dummy’s guide to a European energy union

Poland’s attempt to convince Brussels of the need for an energy union still needs fleshing out, write  Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, Mark McQuay and Roderick Parkes.

In launching the idea of an “Energy Union,” Warsaw managed to leave its mark on the European Commission’s May 2014 Communication on Energy Security. Compared to 2006, when Warsaw advocated a similar package of measures, this breakthrough is a mark of Poland’s growing influence in the EU and a sign of its capacity to navigate the increasingly complex decision-making processes in Brussels. Yet, the inclusion of some of its ideas in the May Communication, “European Energy Security Strategy,” is the beginning of the story, not the end, and the Polish promotional offensive can only rank as a very precarious success.

Just two months after it first presented its proposal, the Polish administration is claiming a victory: the European Commission, in its May 28th Communication, echoed Polish priorities, including strengthening solidarity mechanisms, increasing internal energy production, diversifying routes and suppliers, and reinforcing the external dimension of energy policy. This came as a relief to supporters of the energy union (EnU) proposal: following the lack of interest in its 2006 offering, Warsaw could have been forgiven for a lack of readiness for the take-up of its ideas this time round in Paris, London, Madrid and by the Commission.

For a time, Warsaw did indeed seem to be pursuing too many approaches at once. And yet it seems to have avoided the pitfalls of intergovernmental bargaining (managing the polarisation and cleavages among Member States), of internationalisation (the EU-phobic UK’s attempt to consign the EnU ideas to the care of the G7, or indeed Russia’s attempt to diversify its security of demand), and of avant-gardism (Paris’s move to package up EnU as a joint Franco–Polish proposal in order to preclude the emergence of a Polish– German agenda) and succeeded in engaging with EU norms and inserting its ideas into the Commission’s strategy.

But Poland cannot afford to blow its own trumpet. Indeed, if it does, the Commission Communication will be undermined: association with a particular Member State would politicise not just the usual issue of deeper integration (e.g., purchasing power) but also of maintaining national discretion (e.g., energy mix). Some capitals are already complaining that, just as Warsaw tried in 2006 to mobilise them in a coup on the Commission, now Poland has tried to mobilise the Commission to mount a coup on the states. Warsaw would do better to play down its success, stressing that the Commission was, anyway, planning to include such issues in its Communication.

But this is not time for false modesty, either: this is genuinely a rather modest achievement, and Poland stands at the beginning rather than the end of the lobbying process:

1. The Communication will quickly fade. The fact that the Commission brought forward the publication of its Communication suggests a fear that these ideas would be kicked out into the long grass. But its fears only highlights the difficulties of the political situation and the scale of the incipient change-over at the top of the EU. Perhaps ironically, there is also some speculation that the Commission was planning to put a stronger case for this package of energy security measures had it not been reassured by Polish activism. As it stands, these ideas are unlikely to be dropped altogether, but the parameters of the discussion have not really been set.

2. The cleavages remain undefined and all paths remain open. Not one of the various paths to an energy union has yet been closed. In any upcoming talks, some states may thus strengthen their hand by pointing to the possibility of avant-gardism, thereby undermining the long-term post-2020 aspects of the proposal and its demand for EU-wide solidarity. Others will seek to internationalise affairs, not least France, desperate for a successful COP, again shifting the cleavages. And the European Parliament will now step in where the Commission left off, to debate and define EU norms.

3. The grand bargain may not even be about energy. Poland will also struggle in Council to insulate its proposal from parallel negotiations on matters such as defence solidarity, further eurozone integration or the appointment of the EU’s new top personnel. Already there is speculation in some capitals that the EnU was a “Potemkin proposal,” not designed to be taken seriously as an energy agenda but meant to provoke Poland’s partners into giving clarity on a range of other issues—would Germany show solidarity, for instance, or abandon Poland? Now members will seek to buy Poland off with concessions in fields unrelated to energy.

Poland might therefore usefully try to establish a relatively discrete package of ideas—perhaps now an “Energy Security Union”—and set out its own key positions so as to frame the options and paths available. Internally, Warsaw would need to clarify where its own priorities lie: is this agenda a greater priority than, say, defence or the achievement of a high-profile Commission post; is it more important than maintaining untroubled relations with Germany or France? Externally, it needs to establish its red and blue lines on the emerging cleavages: is it more important to Poland to maintain discretion over the national energy mix or to boost integration in the area of purchases; to rehabilitate coal or to boost external security of supply?

The authors wrote an in-depth analysis on this topic for the  Polish Institute of International Affairs 

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