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|Energy: Italy´s Chance for Leadership|
La Stampa - May 4,2014
In July, Italy will have an opportunity that is also a responsibility. It is an opportunity to show leadership in Europe, an opportunity to launch something that could be remembered as an important and popular phase of the European project. It is also an opportunity to launch—or, more strictly, relaunch—something that would help Italian industry and Italian households, and is the only serious and substantial response that Europe can make to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
That “something” is what could be called an “Energy Union” in Europe. The opportunity is Italy’s turn holding the presidency of the European Council of Ministers, which it will do for six months, starting on July 1st.
These six-month presidencies usually begin with announcements and declarations of grand intentions, especially towards the country’s domestic media, which imply that the role is significant. They are then quickly forgotten amid a morass of boring summits, bland communiqués and snail-like progress. Right now, Italy’s six-month presidency looks like following this traditional pattern.
But it does not need to. Italy’s six months as president, during which it will have a major role in setting Europe’s agenda, will begin in the aftermath of European parliamentary elections of May 22-25. Those election results, if opinion polls are to be believed, may well look quite good for Matteo Renzi, but will look quite bad for the European Union as a whole, with anti-EU parties such as France’s Front National, Britain’s UK Independence Party and Holland’s Freedom Party grabbing the headlines and a shockingly large share of the seats in the Parliament. If so, that will set Europe’s mood, and risks also affecting its agenda.
Those anti-EU votes will reflect the long economic recession and high unemployment above all. But they will also reflect a disillusionment with the European Union that has been building up for a decade or more. Many people now seem to feel that the European Union is at best aimless and incapable of achieving any real progress that improves ordinary people’s lives, or at worst that it is positively damaging, a process that serves the interests of an elite of politicians, bankers and big corporations, at the expense of ordinary people.
Before events in the Ukraine turned ominous, with Russian troops massing on its border and Russian special forces operating inside the country, it was common to say, with a tinge of sadness, that it was tragically ironic that so many Europeans were falling out of love with the EU at just the time when so many Ukrainians were showing in their protests in Kiev that they were in love with the ideas and values that the EU represents.
Since then, as Crimea fell into Russian hands and as the rebellion in eastern Ukraine grew, the European Union has looked more and more impotent. Its threats count for nothing. Its businesses don’t want to lose their contracts in Russia. And altogether we are too dependent on Russia for our supplies of energy to want to risk a serious rupture in relations.
So what can Italy do about this, during its six months chairing all those European summits? It cannot make miracles. But it could begin a process that would improve Italy’s image in Europe and, in the long term, strengthen Italy’s economy.
Energy has always been an obvious candidate for European co-operation and integration. We share the need for secure supplies of energy at as cheap a price as possible. Since we also share a desire to cut carbon-dioxide emissions for the sake of the climate and to produce more of our electricity using clean, renewable energy sources, we also share a need to make our electricity grids as efficient as possible while building the capacity to supply electricity even when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
A single market, competition, the scale provided by a pan-European network, the legal power to prevent national subsidies from competing with each other: these are all the classic tools of European Union co-operation, used in the coal and steel community in the 1950s, the anti-subsidy drive of the 1980s, the single market of the 1990s, the aviation “open skies” policy of the 1990s. As the European Commission has said repeatedly, energy should have been one of the great strides forward for the EU during the past decade.
But it hasn’t been. Essentially, there are three reasons for the failure. One is that energy investments are expensive. But a bigger reason is that national energy companies are powerful and politically well connected, so that they have blocked progress. And a third reason is that the drive for renewable energy has led to national subsidy regimes that divide our markets rather than uniting them, just as subsidies once did for cars or steel, and have made the energy companies even keener to block a common EU energy market.
Now, however, comes Italy’s opportunity and responsibility. The opportunity is to use the crisis over Ukraine to build the political agreement necessary to start clearing away these obstacles. Italy’s own energy giants, ENI and ENEL, have been as obstructive as have the energy giants in Germany and other countries. So if Italy were to make a big effort to relaunch the idea of energy union, it would help to remedy a widespread impression that the government is unwilling to upset either ENI or Russia for craven commercial reasons.
It is a responsibility because Europe badly needs to make progress on energy. Dependence on Russia for one-third of our supplies of natural gas is a serious weakness. And despite being surrounded by suppliers of coal, gas and oil, our electricity prices are typically double or treble those paid in America. Italy’s electricity prices are the highest in the 34-nation club of rich industrial countries, the OECD.
It is a responsibility, above all, because Europe badly needs leadership, and it needs that leadership to show its citizens that the European Union can bring them political, social and economic advantages. Cheaper, secure supplies of energy, in a single, competitive market, connected by a super-smart grid through which electricity can be supplied by companies all over Europe: that would be an excellent and powerful example of what the EU can achieve.