Jerzy Buzek has never strayed far from power. A former Prime Minister of Poland, he joined the European Parliament in 2004 when his country joined the EU. Upon his re-election in 2009, he became President of the House, winning 555 votes out of 644 cast - the largest majority ever. Those were the days of the ‘grand coalition’, and so Buzek’s parliamentary reign ended after two and a half years. Martin Schulz then took over, before last year departing for greener pastures, assuming that’s what you want to call German politics.
These days, Buzek chairs Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee (ITRE). The committee deals with many topics, spanning energy efficiency, to roaming and electricity markets. It’s the go-to committee for debates on innovative technology.
However, before we get down to the nitty-gritty, what I really want to know is, which innovations personally excite our cover star the most? “This may not exactly be ‘exciting’,” says Buzek, “but I do appreciate the invention of water filters back in the 1970s”.
Admittedly, while this isn’t quite the answer I had anticipated, his reasoning is certainly relatable. The Polish deputy explains, “In Belgium I use filters every day to clean tap water. Calcium is good for your body, but water in Brussels has far too much limestone. This Nasa technology makes my life easier, and my water better.” Who said politicians were out of touch?
Anyway, let’s talk shop. ITRE also deals with space policy, which is why Buzek is set to give the closing address at the annual conference on European space policy this week.
Now in its 10th year, the conference boasts speakers that include European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, EU defence ministers and the CEOs of major space and aviation companies.
The EU has long voiced its commitment to space, even publishing a dedicated space strategy. So why is it so important to invest in this area? “Space policy is associated with the most innovative technologies - it always has been. Therefore, it is of crucial importance for the EU to invest in space policy.
“First, because only joint actions can make us a real global space player. The EU - unlike individual member states - has the capacity to create and finance important programmes such as Galileo and Copernicus. At the same time, a lack of ambition in space policy could have serious consequences - dependence, less security, loss of economic opportunities and industrial capacity.
“Second, investment in space policy is a way to boost our economy. Return on investment in this field is fantastic. The European space sector provides over 320,000 jobs and some €52bn to the EU’s economy, bringing competitiveness and innovation with wide spill-over effects. Nowadays, a big part of economic growth is generated by a space-related component (telecoms, navigation, etc). If we want to be a world economic leader, we must also lead in space policy.” Well that settles that, then.
Another hot topic is energy efficiency, with MEPs voting on new consumption and renewables targets in plenary last week. When he took office, Juncker declared that making the EU the world leader in renewable energy would be one of his Commission’s priorities.
Since then, the Brussels executive has published a raft of proposals and packages as part of achieving energy union and transitioning to a circular economy. But given the vast differences that exist between the member states in terms of infrastructure and geography, is this goal really attainable?
Buzek concedes that to make this happen, “we have to address several issues. First, we need to help new technologies grow - from generation, through transmission and smart grids to storage capacity. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity for European industrial innovation and high-tech jobs. Just a few days ago, the ITRE committee adopted my report on this very topic.
“Second, we must solve the problem of intermittency of these energy sources. It is partially about technology, but also concerns flexibility measures, back-up capacity or eliminating loop-flows. Third, harmonisation of support schemes for renewables across the EU is crucial if we want to freely trade it them.”
The EPP group member adds, “We must remember that being a true leader means that someone shares and follows your ambitions; otherwise you are simply a sole frontrunner. I think that especially after COP21 it is more likely that others worldwide will join in our efforts to develop renewable energy. So all in all, I am rather optimistic.”
As part of its commitment to energy efficiency, a little over a year ago, the Commission presented the ‘Clean energy for all Europeans’ package, which MEPs are now busy debating. Among other things, the package seeks to develop a functioning, competitive energy market in Europe. This is no easy feat, and some deputies have blamed national borders for preventing this project from reaching fruition.
Buzek is of a different mind. “I would rather turn it around and say that national measures are incapable of solving some of the key challenges in EU energy policy. Therefore, the biggest task is finding the right balance between the competences of each country and the EU as a whole. And we have the right framework for that: the energy union.
“However, Parliament has stressed many times that there can be no energy union without a well-connected, properly functioning and competitive internal energy market - both in gas and electricity. It is the precondition for affordable energy prices for consumers, greater security of supply, cleaner energy and for ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules.”
Seeking to develop an internal energy market is not a new ambition - “The deadline for accomplishing it passed over four years ago,” explains Buzek.
However, this new clean energy package could change things somewhat. “I truly believe that the clean energy package will help us at least to shape the EU’s electricity market. While moving beyond national borders, we should however remember about differences between the member states, their autonomy to shape the energy mix and stage of development of their electricity markets. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can often be overly simplified, costly and harmful, not only to the energy sector but also to the consumers.”
Buzek hopes to finalise the clean energy package this year. “By the end of spring, Parliament will have voted on all of the files. Hopefully we will be able to conclude all trialogues by December and enter 2019 with a new clean energy framework.”
On top of his duties as Chair of ITRE, Buzek is Parliament’s rapporteur on raft of dossiers, including reforming common rules for the internal market in natural gas.
“My key and only priority on this report is to ensure that we fill the regulatory gap - a result of diverging interpretation of the existing law and of selective approaches in applying the third energy package legislation to gas pipelines from third countries to the EU. Although some argue that the gas directive already addresses this issue, it turns out that current rules are vague with too much room for interpretation.”
The MEP believes that “what we need is full legal clarity and transparency for all the pipelines from third countries to the EU, which guarantees a level playing field in the EU energy sector as well as ensures long-term investment certainty and predictability. This is crucial for every market participant willing to play according to fair rules - not only in gas market and not only from the EU.
“This is why Parliament has repeatedly called on the Commission to amend the gas directive accordingly. I am happy this came into effect. This was all the more important given that our dependence on gas imports is still growing.”
Looking to the year ahead, Buzek says 2018 will be a busy time for his committee, singling out four priority areas; “energy, ICT, defence industry and preparatory work for a new MFF, including a new ninth framework programme for research and innovation.
“In the first half of 2018, our committee hopes to reach a political agreement on the connectivity package. It is very important that the amended framework helps to increase competition and predictability for investment. It is also a goal of the EU cybersecurity package, which I would like to have ready by the end of this year. In other words, this year is about continuing eff orts to build a genuine digital union.”
Buzek says MEPs also “expect to finish the first semester with a new European defence industrial development programme. A new and very important programme, giving a real source of integration for the EU member states.”
The latter half of this year “will be devoted to discussions on a new multiannual financial framework. The ITRE committee recently adopted its opinion on the MFF, which will contribute to Parliament’s position on the new EU budget post-2020. The EU faces a very daunting task of proposing a framework with increased funding, even as the UK leaves the bloc. We must strike a balance between our ambitions and needs, focusing on areas and projects with clear European added value.”