EU must tackle national barriers to energy flows

National borders are restricting the development of Europe’s energy sector, argues Flavio Zanonato.

Flavio Zanonato | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Flavio Zanonato

22 Nov 2017

In its most diverse forms, energy is the pivot of every social and productive community. It contributes to determining development prospects and the degree of competitiveness of our societies, and is the primary sector through which anti-global warming objectives can be achieved.

Nevertheless, Europe’s energy sector struggles to compete globally, and is both inadequate in terms of interconnections and infrastructure, and expensive for businesses and individuals. 

It is mainly nationally dominated, in a context where - paradoxically - almost everything else circulates freely in the Union and among Schengen countries. 


In other words, national borders are too often still normative, and technical barriers are preventing energy from flowing where it is needed and demanded the most.

A palpable example of this structural and normative frailty is provided each time a member state faces a sudden interruption in electricity flows. 

Although common sense would suggest that neighbouring countries should help the concerned state in overcoming the damaging effects of an electricity crisis, this is not the case. 

On the contrary, as witnessed recently during January’s cold spell in south-eastern Europe, neighbouring countries often seal their energy borders, thus avoiding mutual assistance.

It follows that when an electricity crisis happens, whether it is related to a malicious attack or due to the structural weaknesses of the system, the concerned state is left alone in coping with the abrupt disruption of basic services, with dire social and economic consequences.

As part of the ‘Clean energy for all Europeans’ package, the proposed regulation on risk preparedness in the electricity sector aims to tackle this normative vacuum. It sets up clear and transparent rules governing the cross-border management of an electricity crisis. Today’s electricity markets and systems are increasingly interlinked across borders and decentralised.

Therefore, a high level of cooperation and coordination among all actors, within the member states and across borders, is essential. The proposal goes in this direction: it establishes common methodologies and principles for identifying situations of significant electricity shortage, and sets up the conditions for preparing, managing and evaluating electricity crises. 

On top of that, we are working to clarify competences, procedures and decision-making powers, as well as to ensure the right degree of confidentiality for risk management plans, so that these are not exposed to the potential danger of malicious attacks.

Member states retain the right to carry out their own risk assessments, but I believe these should be executed according to a common, regional methodology in order to avoid inconsistencies, redundancies and loopholes. 

If today risk-preparedness focuses mainly on the adequacy of the available infrastructure, on the other hand a common methodology for identifying and assessing a crisis would enable us to tackle the operational issue of crisis prevention and preparation, crisis management and ex-post evaluation.

The principle of solidarity and mutual assistance is the real backbone of the regulation, since under the proposed legislation member states would not be allowed to shirk their mutual responsibilities, if not when the objective lack of cross-border infrastructure prevents them from assisting each other. 

In any other case, in other words when cross-border transmission is technically feasible, member states would not be allowed to decline a request of assistance from a neighbouring partner because of domestic political considerations.

This goes hand in hand with a neat focus on market rules, and the need to avoid derogations that would reinstate the current status quo. It needs to be noted, in fact, that a patchy and fragmented EU energy sector does not serve the long-term interests of any of the member states, with the sole and occasional exception of short-sighted national leadership acting under the illusion that it is still possible to maintain a firm national grip on energy commonalities.

Indeed, as the security of energy supply is a shared responsibility between the member states and the EU, the European dimension of action needs to be fully deployed once an individual member state cannot cope, alone, with the damaging effects of a malicious attack, or a crisis due to the structural system deficiencies.

Although there seems to be political ground in the European Parliament for a wide consensus on the terms of the amended regulation, the main hurdles will come from the inter-institutional trilogues with the Council. They are set to begin next year, following a vote in Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee and the adoption of a common position in Council. 

Even though certain member states will likely try to water down the ambition of the amended regulation - particularly when it comes to establishing common methodologies and the principle of mutual assistance - a broad and consensual vote in the Parliament would be the best political asset in expectation of the incoming inter-institutional challenges.


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