Energy and climate in the von der Leyen era

From Jean-Claude Juncker to Ursula von der Leyen , the heritage of the "Energy Union".

by Margherita Bianchi
07 February 2020
7 min read
by Margherita Bianchi
07 February 2020
7 min read

Ursula von der Leyen has definitely made no secret of her intention to put the climate at the center of her mandate. She made it clear during her hearing before the European Parliament, reiterated it in her political guidelines and finally put it on paper in the letters of appointment addressed to her team of commissioners. On climate and energy, the new executive will necessarily have to pick up on some of the matters left open by its predecessor, but as the baton passes from Jean-Claude Juncker to Ursula von der Leyen at least part of the “Energy Union”, the ambitious energy and climate strategy set up by Juncker himself, seems to have been abandoned.

The Energy Union inheritance

Consisting of five pillars - energy security, energy market, energy efficiency, decarbonization, research & innovation - the Energy Union is the perimeter within which, over the five-year period since its birth in 2014, the internal mechanisms and external projection of the European Union on climate and energy have been strengthened. Under its umbrella, the Commission finalized many important legislative acts, first and foremost the so-called “Clean energy package for all Europeans” consisting of eight measures on emissions, efficiency, renewables, tools to ensure greater flexibility in the electricity market and to better address the risks in the sector, strengthen cooperation between energy regulators and establish functional governance to achieve the EU's 2030 objectives. Strongly sponsored by the Polish Tusk and born of the tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in 2014 (and therefore the potential consequences on the supply of Russian gas) the Energy Union also had an important impact on the structure of energy supply and on the European external dimension.

Despite the encouraging and substantial results, the mission certainly cannot be said to be complete, with many matters that are crucial to completing the energy and climate integration puzzle awaiting an answer.  In its defense, it must be said that the Juncker Commission had set itself a difficult task and that the project is relatively young. It is also sadly known that, especially in the energy sector, the ambition of the Commission and Parliament succumbs to the realpolitik of the member states, which lead to vetoes being imposed at cross purposes and push down targets. There are many problems to be solved in any case, both on the domestic front - including the national plans for 2030 (NECPs), taxation and the permanent barriers on interconnections - and on the external one. In fact, it seems impossible to speak with one voice on strategic energy infrastructure, and on the climate there is still a need to make climate security a geopolitical priority of all external relations - especially with large emitters.

Despite the many boxes to be ticked, however, in the new von der Leyen era there will no longer be a Vice President for the Energy Union – a position that has thus far been held by the Slovakian Sefkovic. Moreover, the strategy is almost never mentioned in the new Commission policy guidelines, a sign of a marked discontinuity with the past, which, although it may cause some bewilderment, will hopefully reveal an innovative and functional approach, with fewer divisions and greater efficiency.

A transversal approach

The change of pace can already be seen in the letters of appointment sent by VdL to the designated commissioners. The climate becomes a major theme, but it becomes a transversal priority with respect to the organization of the Commission and no longer a separate pillar of the Energy Union. It will therefore be the responsibility of an executive vice president, Dutch commissioner Timmermans, who has been given a hundred days to present a “European Green Deal” and instructed to propose a plan by 2021 to increase the ambition on emissions to 55 percent by 2030. There is also talk of a transition fund being set up - particularly crucial for some countries like Greece or Poland - that will allow orderly and socially acceptable progress to be made towards a sustained energy transition. In close contact with Timmermans, as Commissioner for the Economy, Paolo Gentiloni will also have a very important energy role. He will have to work on revising the energy taxation directive and will be responsible for proposing a cross-border carbon tax and dealing with the Investment Plan for a Sustainable Europe, in line with the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

The former Italian prime minister will work in close contact with Valdis Dombrovskis, in charge of developing a green financing strategy to direct investments and financing towards the energy transition and coordinating work globally. Dombrovsis will also be entrusted with managing relations with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and with a role in the process converting part of it into a European climate bank. The finance dimension, which is central to the energy transition, will therefore involve Timmermans as well as Dombrovskis and Gentiloni, as well as the structures supporting them, including the CLIMA and FISMA DGs.

The more strictly energy-related portfolio will instead be in the hands of the Estonian Kadri Simson, former supervisor of the inter-institutional talks on the reform of the electricity markets in Europe during the Estonian presidency of the EU. The letter of appointment addressed to Simson in fact contains an initial reference to the Energy Union, which is evaluated as positive and considered the basis for the development of a stronger European energy market, but again the new Commission’s position on the future of the strategy is not made clear. Simson will be supported by the new Director General for Energy, Ditte Juul-Jørgensen (previously a member of the Vestager cabinet), who has already announced that she will take a hard line in the dispute opened by Nord Stream2 and Gazprom regarding the revision of the gas directive, saying she is prepared to go before the Court of Justice or arbitration to defend the EU’s stance. The pillars of energy security and the energy market will therefore probably have a life of their own under Simson, together with the NECP governance process, thus continuing with the work of the previous Commission.

Climate, the glue for the next 5 years

The ambition of the new Commission is therefore clearly to make climate the golden rule that links different sectors such as the economy, taxation, digitization, energy and industry. While the last Commission had set the framework of the executive’s “energy” action by entrusting the Energy Union to a vice president, with the Green New Deal portfolio now in the hands of one of the three executive vice-presidents, the climate will definitely that occupy minds at the top of the Commission and act as a perimeter for action.

There is also perhaps a communication reason behind this choice. Energy alone is certainly a more sensitive issue for many member states but, like it or not, it is also a more distant topic from the general public. The fight against climate change, on the contrary, is increasingly a reason for participation and interest in European politics, enjoying broad popular support - at 93% according to the most recent Eurobarometer surveys. Sustained action on the climate, besides being preferable and achievable, therefore also pays in terms of consensus, which certainly does not hurt in a Europe weakened by worrying sovereignist and nationalist narratives. All eyes are now on November 1, kick-off day for the new Commission, which will have to prove it has the key to accelerate action on the energy and climate priorities. 

The author: Margherita Bianchi

 Junior Researcher, IAI