30th May 2023


Does EU's post-Ukraine dash-for-gas square with green goals?

  • French populist opposition will be drumming high energy prices, which are a close memory of the petrol spikes that kickstarted the 'Yellow Vests' movement in 2018 (Photo: Olivier Ortelpa)
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When political leaders return from their unusually hot summer holidays, they will soon face the spectre of an exceptionally cold winter.

With gas and oil prices skyrocketing due to the war in Ukraine, energy bills will leave millions of citizens struggling to stay warm and make ends meet.

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To address this latest of pan-European crises, political leaders must shape three interconnected policies, namely energy affordability, climate change and democracy.

These three goals, once all part of the same progressive agenda, have recently started to pull in different directions.

France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands are reopening coal plants, which ups their energy supply but hurts their climate goals.

Belgium has similarly mothballed the closure of two nuclear reactors.

Energy shortages have led Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson to cozy up to Saudi Arabia's crown prince, suspected of ordering the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

German politicians are courting the autocratic United Arab Emirates for its solar energy, in an aim to marry climate adaptation and energy prices, but abandoning democracy along the way. Calls by France for a deal with Russia in its war against Ukraine may lower energy prices but threaten the credibility of the West's pro-democracy efforts.

Europe's leaders will argue that in this trilemma between energy, climate and democracy, one can never satisfy all three policy priorities fully.

Admittedly, squaring the circle between these goals will not be easy. But if EU leaders want to maintain the support of citizens and international allies, only a coherent policy trinity that puts democracy at its centre will work.

After all, democracies have proven to deal better with systemic crises. The still ongoing Covid lockdowns in China, continuing long after Europe ended its pandemic restrictions, are a case in point.

Second, only democracies have the freedom of information that makes for evidence-based policies. All governments currently face information uncertainty over energy availability, temperature rises, and daily war developments in Ukraine.

Finding the right policy mix between these, therefore requires independent media and free academic discourse, which only democracies offer.

Waves of protests

Third, democratic debate balances the interests of different groups in society. Various waves of protest may soon test the resilience of European societies. French populist opposition will be drumming high energy prices, which are a close memory of the petrol spikes that kickstarted the 'Yellow Vests' movement in 2018.

Dutch farmers will continue to clash with environmentalist politicians. Human rights activists will lament shortsighted collaboration with resource rich despots. In this polarised context, only democracies can negotiate a policy consensus between opposing groups.

Fourth, democracies are checked by independent bodies, such as the judiciary. These ensure that short-term interests do not override long-term public needs.

Since 2019, Dutch and German court rulings have forced governments to uphold internationally agreed climate norms.

Fifth, democracies offer more tailored decision making at local level. Hannover's mayor has foregone Berlin's procrastination on energy savings, ordering all public swimming pools to lower their temperature. By comparison, few Russian apparatchiks would dare stand up against the all-powerful Kremlin.

Should, however, the EU bow to short-term calls for low energy prices, it will ultimately land into a series of problems. First and foremost, climate change would continue to worsen.

Furthermore, the EU would renew its dependency on fickle autocrats, which started the energy crisis in the first place. Social tension would rise between those on opposite sides of the energy-climate spectrum.

Lastly, the EU would lose international allies, who see double standards when asked to support climate change and democracy policies, while the EU itself sacrifices these for low energy prices.

The EU needs policy coherency when dealing with energy, climate, and democracy. Doing so makes for better policies and helps maintain the support of citizens and international partners. In a rapidly changing global order, plagued by crises, strong policies that are deemed credible will determine the EU's place in the world.

Author bio

Sam van der Staak is a policy expert on democratic developments in Europe, and heads the Europe Programme at the Stockholm-based think tank the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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