The Energy Union strategy is the latest attempt to upgrade EU energy policy. The EU’s global energy and climate policies are going through a period of intense change, and this change has implications for the EU’s foreign and security policies. There is much fluid debate about how the EU should confront the emerging set of challenges that derive from the link between energy policy and security strategies. While efforts are underway to deepen unity among the Union’s member states, doubts remain about how well positioned the EU is to navigate both the positive and negative sides of the evolving international energy and geopolitical context.

Richard Youngs
Youngs is an expert on the foreign policy of the European Union, in particular on questions of democracy support.
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Against this background, the relationship between energy policies and foreign policy remains under-defined within the new Energy Union. We make five arguments about the Energy Union’s external dimensions.

First, as it is currently formulated the Energy Union’s impact on foreign policy is likely to be indirect and implied, rather than direct and purposive.

While the EU has for several years promised to tighten the link between energy policy and foreign policy, the Energy Union does not create strong mechanisms capable of giving tangible form to this commitment. The Energy Union assumes that developments to internal energy policy will have beneficial effects on the EU’s foreign policy manoeuvrability. It takes an inside-out rather than outside-in approach to external energy security. It assumes internal EU markets and rules by extension create an external energy strategy. The Energy Union does not map out what EU geopolitical interests actually are or how EU internal markets and rules are then to be harnessed to these interests. In all these respects, the Energy Union’s external dimensions are likely to fall short of the required upgrade.

Second, the direction of linkage between energy policy and foreign policy remains unresolved.

A key question is whether energy policy should more strongly condition foreign policy, or inversely whether foreign policy objectives should be able to steer energy policy. While there is consensus on the need to make sure that energy and foreign policy are better dovetailed with each other, the EU and its member states are still ambivalent on the direction of this linkage. The Energy Union is not the source of this tension, but neither does it clarify the tactical choice; indeed, it opens the doors to a protracted struggle between different actors on this question.

For a long time, critics have said that energy policy has trumped EU geo-strategy. It is not clear how far the Energy Union moves towards a reverse situation where energy policy acts in the service of geo-strategy. European governments have contrasting views on this. This is because they have contrasting views on what external energy security is really about.

Despite having signed up to the common Energy Union document, member states still differ on whether a fully-fledged EU external energy policy can best address their varied short and medium-term security concerns. While policy-makers now deliberate more on how energy policies inhibit foreign policy manoeuvrability, there is still little thinking evident on what kind of overarching foreign policy changes are required to meet energy policy goals – something we believe to be the overriding priority.

Third, the Energy Union’s concern with the ‘Russia factor’ has clouded a coherent global security vision.

It is well-known that the Energy Union was motivated by many member states’ desire to reduce their dependence on Russian supplies, in a context of broken strategic partnership with Moscow. Yet, the Energy Union does not contain well-worked plans for a balanced set of global energy partnerships. Nor does it indicate how EU foreign policies would need to change to create effective partnerships with other suppliers. The EU still frames energy security as security of supply into European markets; it does not approach energy policy as a factor that affects the broader degree of stability in other countries.

The EU cannot put in place effective energy partnerships with other suppliers without deepening a comprehensive foreign and security policy engagement with these countries, both multilaterally and bilaterally. Nor can the Energy Union do the heavy lifting of a common European foreign policy - to some extent it presupposes that the latter is further developed, whether in relation to Russia, the Middle East or other potential supplier countries.

The narrow prism of bilateral and single-sector approaches that characterize EU strategic partnerships undermines the Union´s credibility in its desire to secure energy supplies from countries which remain by and large autocratic, fragile and unstable. The external dimension of the Energy Union cannot limit itself to the EU signing formal and very traditional cooperation deals with supplier countries in the Caucasus or Middle East. Rather, it must entail EU foreign policy helping to ensure that energy sector management become a factor of stability in a broader and more holistic sense. A particular lacuna is that the EU continues to neglect strategic deliberation on energy in North Africa and the Middle East. Curiously, if the EU risks over-securitizing its energy policy with Russia, it still under-securitizes its approach to other suppliers.

Fourth, the Energy Union so far does little to cohere and streamline the different components and objectives of external energy policy.

The EU will continue to be an amorphous actor trying to balance between different objectives and the Energy Union can only be expected to manage rather than resolve this situation. Yet there are further improvements that could be made. Even when taking into account the important council conclusions on energy diplomacy adopted in July 2015, there seems to be an assumption that gearing more funds from different EU instruments towards a particular strategic energy sector will result in coherent action. It is true that the energy diplomacy action plan does fill some policy gaps by promising to harness the multiplier effect of the EU’s global outreach for energy aims. In practice, however, the division of labour between different European institutions remains unclear, leaving room for the kind of inter-institutional turfism that undermines global strategic effectiveness. The European External Action Service (EEAS), in particular, still needs a clearer and stronger energy policy mandate.

Again, the Energy Union is not the cause of existing stresses between different EU objectives; in some ways it registers these tensions and sets the foundation for a more clear-eyed debate over competing priorities. Yet, the Energy Union will need to be structured in a way that does not worsen incoherencies. At present, EU’s Energy Union strategy sends mixed messages to supplier states. It talks of new external partnerships but also of decreasing consumption. The Energy Union will need to define more clearly the relation between its different objectives.

Fifth, the Energy Union will have implications for the relationship between climate change policies and broader security objectives.

At present, the Energy Union does not spell out the nature of the link between its climate objectives, on the one hand, and EU foreign policy instruments and aims, on the other hand. Many commentators have already pointed out that energy security cannot displace the need for a fundamental energy transition to a low carbon economy. But the Energy Union also needs to go beyond the normal parameters of ‘energy transition’ if it is to provide genuine ‘security’ against climate change. While the EU takes the lead on pushing for an ambitious agreement on emissions targets at the December 2015 Paris Conference, it still needs to develop a full-spectrum ‘climate foreign policy’. A forward-looking climate policy cannot be confined to negotiating targets with large emitters in high level conferences but ought to also be embedded in the heart of the EU’s wide range of cross-cutting initiatives and external actions with third countries at the regional, national and local levels.

Shahrazad Far is a researcher and project leader at Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC).

Read the full text of this report on the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies website.