The challenges facing the European Union in 2015 are far from unfamiliar. Greek debt, a rising tide of migrants from Africa, British intransigence and a potential EU exit, and the struggle for growth in a bloc of 28 grab media headlines on a regular basis.
Much less is written about the EU’s plans to create the “Energy Union”. Though it might have slipped beneath the radar of Europe’s citizens, the “Energy Union” aims to complete the Single Market by uniting Europe’s fragmented energy markets.
It aims to ensure security of supply as well as more affordable and sustainable energy enabling the EU to meet its decarbonisation and climate change targets.
Plans are underway across the continent for the construction of new electricity and gas connectors and for Europe to speak with one voice when negotiating with external energy suppliers.
Investment in infrastructure will improve energy security by connecting the flow of energy of member states as well as “preparing networks for renewable energy”. Securing improvements in energy efficiency is central to the EU’s vision.
For a trading bloc that imports more than half of its energy the “Energy Union” presents a significant development. Added weight has been given to the plans by the threat to European energy security posed by Russia – its major supplier. Broad support for the Energy Union already exists. According to the European Commission (EC), 3 out of 4 citizens support the EU’s plans. That has not prevented the Commission from trying to get its message across more directly.
EC Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has embarked on a “Roadshow” currently visiting a number of member states to talk about the benefits of the new “Union”. It is clear that the Commission wants to involve stakeholders and citizens in the “Energy Union” from the outset.
The view from London and many other member states is likely to remain sceptical. Electricity, heat and fuel supply remain key prerogatives for many countries. The reaction of British audiences to Mr Šefčovič’s visit in July will be interesting given the Conservative government’s promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017.
As significant a challenge remains getting stakeholders and Europeans excited about a Commission-led initiative which feels removed from many of the daily challenges facing the EU and which dominate the headlines.
It was interesting to note that while Solar Impulse 2, the longest solar-powered flight, achieved blanket print, broadcast and digital coverage over the weekend after having aborted the longest stretch of its round-the-globe trip, the signing of a new International Energy Charter received scant attention.
It is not hard to exaggerate the communications’ challenge facing the “Energy Union”. Getting key stakeholders and the European public behind what feels like an abstract, top-down project must involve demonstrating practical examples of success at a national and regional level. This has to be backed up by vocal support from business, industry, communities and supportive member state bureaucracies.
If this happens, historians in the future may point to 2015 as the year in which Europe started to resolve one of the most pressing challenges to a more cohesive continent.