Rhein on Energy and Climate

On an ordinary October day 2010 the international media carried four reports concerning EU activities:

  • EU moves to block a Polish deal with Russia;
  • EU claims victory over aircraft C02 emissions;
  • EU Parliament to extend motherhood vacation to 20 weeks;
  • EU Presidency proposes compromise over environmental levies on trucks.

Each of these apparently trivial and disconnected stories demonstrates the profound implications EU legislative processes have for EU and international companies and citizens.

By telling the Polish government that a 25 year – agreement with Gazprom for the exclusive supply of gas through the Amal pipeline would be incompatible with EU legislation concerning free access to pipelines and the objective of diversifying its external energy supply. This may not please Gazprom or the Russian government, but is essential to keep alternative channels of gas supply, including LNG via the Baltic, open.

By extending emission caps and trading to all domestic and foreign airlines using EU airports from 2012 onwards the EU may have contributed to the Resolution adopted October 9th by the International Air Carriers Organisation (ICAO) to curb C02 emissions from aircraft.

If the EP will vote on October 19th to extend motherhood vacation in the EU to at least 20 weeks this will alleviate the health burden of mothers but cost employers several billion euros per year. It would be one of the most significant pieces of social legislation adopted by the EU, i.e. in a field that has never been in the centre of EU legislation.

EU countries have been struggling for years with the issue of “external costs” – noise, pollution, traffic jams, – produced by road transport. Now transport ministers seem close to an agreement on the imposition of extra environmental levies. This would make truck transport more expensive and benefit more environment-friendly rail transport.

These four ad random cases of EU activities demonstrate the extreme diversity and effectiveness that EU action has reached today. Slowly and imperceptibly the EU has been advancing into practically all realms of social and economic life, replacing or complementing national legislation and impacting on third countries.

Internally, the process is driven by the rapidly growing interaction between EU countries that allows less and less diversity of rules and regulations. Trucks operate throughout Europe; in a Europe with free movement of labour the harmonisation of widely divergent EU legislation concerning motherhood vacation therefore makes sense.

Externally, the EU demonstrates power by the collective leverage it possesses. Russia cannot but respect EU competition rules; the alternative would be loss of market share.

Third country airlines have no option but to resign to EU climate rules concerning aircraft C02 emissions. Why then not introduce universally applicable rules, which will establish a level playing field for the aircraft carriers of all 200 odd countries on earth?

No individual member country still possesses the clout to “impose” its interests on third countries. Only the EU can still do this, provided it sticks together or creates a “fait accompli”.

There is reason to believe that this process will continue and even accelerate. Like a “spin web” the EU progresses into ever new areas. The latest ones are its bigger role in financial surveillance and macro-economic coordination to ensure the sustainability of the euro-zone and, in the external field, the negotiation of bilateral free trade agreements with East Asian countries.

In the short run, European citizens will not feel much of these changes, except when they concern social improvements, from visa facilities to equality of sexes and motherhood vacation. But sooner or later the social acquis will have acquired a critical mass for every European to become aware.

Outside powers have been aware of European “soft power” for many years. In the future, they will see more of it, even if Europe may more often defend its interests and behave less generously than in the past when it enjoyed higher competitive standards.

The EU is often blamed for its internal and external weaknesses as outside observers fail to recognise the often minute incremental changes. The slowness of the process is an inestimable advantage: as a major catalyst of change the EU upsets the status of quo of powers within and outside. To allow such changes to proceed peacefully they better take place discreetly and without fanfare, even at the price of being criticised.

The EU will need to strike a delicate balance between discretion and better explanation of what it is doing when and why. That is the best remedy against criticisms from those who do not see the EU added value and those who feel the EU usurps powers that should remain with member states.

Brussels, 11.10.10 Eberhard Rhein

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