Diplomatic squabbles are breaking out as member states look to decarbonise their energy sectors.
Under the European Green Deal, the EU is targeting climate neutrality by 2050. To achieve that, member states will need to phase out the use of coal. However, the routes towards that goal vary significantly, and that’s generating diplomatic friction.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in early March, Germany pledged that it will work to quash nuclear power. “Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean,” German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said as she unveiled a 12-point plan to work towards a global nuclear phase-out. She rejected the “myth” that the technology could help provide a way out of the climate crisis, insisting that “the future is for renewable energy”.
In the wake of the Japanese nuclear accident, Germany had swiftly announced that it would shutter all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Its recent announcement suggests Berlin now plans to use its considerable weight to push others to follow suit.
“Despite the problems with Energiewende, Germany views itself as a forerunner of global actions to protect the climate and is making every effort to maintain its green image on the international stage,” write analysts at Warsaw’s Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).
In particular, Schulze suggests that Germany’s new anti-nuclear drive will take aim at projects close to its borders. That won’t go down well with the Visegrad Four (V4). The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are all pinning their hopes on nuclear to help with their energy transitions.
The quartet insists they cannot meet the EU climate targets without nuclear. The Czech Republic has placed the technology at the core of its transition plans and aims to build up to four new reactors over the coming decades.
“If we really want to reach carbon neutrality, we have to understand that each member state has a different energy mix and that the costs of reaching carbon neutrality are different for each state,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in 2019 as he pushed for Brussels to recognise nuclear as a “low carbon energy source”.
Yet it’s not just Germany standing in the way. The stance over nuclear power puts the V4 at odds with many other EU states to the west, which also stress renewable energy sources as the solution.
Further than that, the group has diverging interests among themselves, which are becoming more obvious as the transition starts to become a reality – one that carries with it immense economic, social and geopolitical implications.
Vienna has long sought to block new nuclear projects in the EU, so it was little surprise that Schulze’s plan had the support of her Austrian peer Leonore Gewessler.
In 2019, a delay in the expansion of Slovakia’s Mochovce plant, which alongside the Bohunice plant already produces 55 per cent of the country’s electricity, was credited to Austria’s opposition.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called it a “step in the right direction” in the long campaign to block the project, which is badly over budget and a decade past its original deadline. “We will not let up until all our safety concerns have been answered,” the Austrian leader promised.
Despite such bullish words, neither Austria nor Germany is about to try to directly block Central Europe’s nuclear dreams. Sovereignty is an especially sensitive topic among the generally euro-sceptic V4, as Slovakia’s then-prime minister Peter Pellegrini illustrated by slamming Kurz for “meddling” in his country’s business.
The Central European states are swift to point at EU guarantees that every member state has sovereignty over the energy mix they employ to meet the bloc’s climate targets.
“Our countries have different views on nuclear energy and different strategies regarding the energy mix,” Zuzana Stichova, spokesperson for the Czech Foreign Ministry, tells BIRN when asked if Berlin’s renewed push against nuclear could interfere with Prague’s plans, adding that member states can “agree to disagree”.
Indeed, Berlin’s careful approach to the balance of power in the EU means it’s unlikely to provoke a big fight in Brussels over nuclear. “Of course, the discussion would be very different if France was not the world’s leading nuclear state,” suggests Krzysztof Debiec, a research fellow at OSW.
Austria is also exposed to realpolitik. Vienna’s objections have become a little quieter recently as it has sought closer engagement with its V4 neighbours via the regional cooperation forums Slavkov Three and Central Five.
Even so, Central Europe remains well aware of Berlin’s potential leverage. The Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks were forced to fight hard to get nuclear included as a potential “low carbon” energy source before they signed off on the European Green Deal in late 2019. Poland, which hopes to have its first nuclear unit up and running by 2033, was pleased with the demand but still withheld its full commitment.
A week after the German environment minister declaration’s, the V4 fired off a letter to the European Commission on March 19, also signed by France, Romania and Slovenia, reminding Brussels of its commitment to “the technology neutrality principle”.
“Germany’s great weight in the EU means it could still create complications for the plans of its neighbours to build new nuclear capacity,” suggests Karel Polanecky at Friends of the Earth Czech Republic.
In particular, the projects are likely to be vulnerable on funding. Austria fought a six-year court case that sought to have UK government guarantees on the Hinkley Point C project declared illegal under EU state aid rules – though ultimately lost. To prevent a similar situation, Polanecky points out that the Czech government will provide 100 per cent of the funding for a new unit at the Dukovany plant. Poland will likely do the same to finally get itself in the nuclear game.
At the same time, the nuclear tussle is not a solely European affair. The drive to build new nuclear reactors exposes these small countries to the geopolitical jockeying of global powers, as Russia and the US push for the contracts to build them and associated political leverage.
A bridge to clean energy
Whichever party gets chosen to expand Dukovany, it won’t deliver a working reactor for 20 years or so. In the meantime, the Czechs will be encouraged to increase development of renewables to replace coal, which currently are responsible for just 12 per cent of total electricity output. However, Prague plans mainly on gas to bridge the gap.
Reliance on gas pushes the country back into the middle of the geopolitical struggle between the US and Russia, which are jockeying for position in the European market as the energy transitions promise to boost demand.
Moscow is seeking to deepen Central and Eastern Europe’s (CEE) dependence on its supplies via the construction of Nord Stream 2 (NS2), a pipeline that will carry 55 billion cubic metres per year to Germany for distribution across Europe.
Berlin is resisting efforts by the US to block the project. Washington has genuine worries about Russian leverage over the region, but also hopes itself to grab a chunk of the European market by shipping in liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Keenly Atlanticist and Russophobic, Poland has blasted its German neighbour for taking part in NS2. Warsaw, meanwhile, is investing heavily in infrastructure with hopes of turning itself into a regional hub for US and Norwegian gas supplies.
The huge NS2 project is also driving a wedge into the V4. Slovakia, which will lose its strategic role carrying Russian gas arriving via Ukraine to Europe, has joined Poland in its opposition to NS2, albeit with less fervour.
But the Czechs and Hungarians hope to gain from their neighbour’s loss. Hungary is eyeing a major role in distributing gas supplies across the south of the region sourced from Turk Stream, another new Russian pipeline running under the Black Sea.
Prague is building its own new pipelines in order to win a strategic role in distributing the gas that NS2 will deliver. That will offer the country increased security and cheaper supplies as consumption rises, perhaps by two or three times according to some officials.
Despite the fury that NS2 provokes in the neighbourhood, “in Prague support for the project is not even controversial,” notes Debiec.
The effect on relations is frequently illustrated at V4 summits. Polish and Slovak leaders commonly bring up the Russian project; the Czechs and Hungarians won’t touch the topic with a bargepole.
Friends and neighbours?
But transition friction plays out not only on the international stage as part of Cold War mark II. Conflict is also rising at a more local level among the Visegrad club mates.
In late February, Prague launched a lawsuit at the Court of Justice of the European Union calling on Poland to halt operations at the Turow open-cast coal mine, which sits on the tri-border also shared with Germany. It is the first-ever lawsuit on environmental issues between EU states.
The Czechs, currently prevaricating over whether to phase out coal by 2033 or 2038, have been pushing Warsaw on the issue for years, complaining that the mine is polluting its water and air. However, the Polish government last year extended Turow’s licence. State-controlled utility PGE hopes to continue exploiting the deposit until 2044, five years ahead of the country’s planned phase out.
Officials insist that like the stark differences over NS2, the argument over Turow is not critical to bilateral relations. “The lawsuit certainly does not mean the end of the direct dialogue on the expansion of the Turow mine,” says Zuzana Stichova, spokesperson for the Czech Foreign Ministry, insisting that Prague and Warsaw enjoy a “high level of mutual relations”.
But others are not so sure. “Poland’s increasingly irrational support for coal expansion is… isolating us from our friends and neighbours,” claims Anna Meres of Greenpeace Poland.
Frank Umbach, research director at the European Cluster for Climate, Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS), suggests that the lawsuit “highlights the major problem that EU member states still tend to develop their national energy policies and strategies by overlooking both the potential impacts on neighbouring countries as well as opportunities for regional energy cooperation.”
However, it has raised hackles in Poland. In a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the Polish energy giant PGE, Wojciech Dabrowski, slammed the Czech objections as “unjustified and unfair”, making it clear that his company has no intention of backing down or rushing to embrace the transition by quitting mines like Turow.
“I have repeatedly emphasised that a rapid departure from coal is not possible for technical, economic and, above all, social reasons,” Dabrowski stated emphatically.
Umbach, whose paper was published in conjunction with PGE, also says the Poles can’t afford to switch as quickly as their neighbours. “In all Polish regions some 100,000 jobs rely on coal and the state cannot afford to copy the German model of the Energiewende,” he writes.
However, Polanecky claims that in fact economics is accelerating the process. “It’s clear that some Polish power plants will go under due to CO2 prices and policy will have to change,” the analyst argues.
That development has already started, albeit the pace is somewhat glacial. For the first time ever, coal’s share in the Polish generation mix dropped below 70 per cent in 2020, according to the Forum Energii think tank. “The rapidly rising cost of CO2 emissions and constantly high cost of domestic coal, among other things, has made energy production in Poland increasingly uncompetitive,” the researchers note.
“The attitude in Czechia to coal has changed more quickly,” says Debiec. However, with the fuel still firing around 40 per cent of electricity generation the country is “still heavily dependent,” he points out, adding that Czech business groups also own half of the lignite-based assets still operating in Germany.
In fact, Poland is moving faster than the Czechs when it comes to development of renewables, he says. The International Energy Agency estimates Poland will increase its renewable energy capacity by 65 per cent between 2019 and 2024, mostly from onshore wind farms.
That will please many member states to the west, though they remain unhappy that the V4 states continue to drag their feet. Tough talks are going on over just which fuels are classed as “sustainable” under EU rules. The classification will dictate which projects will be able to access funds under the 150-billion-euro Just Transition Mechanism (JTM), designed to help heavily dependent states dispense with coal.
Hence, just as the start of the transition is stirring things up, friction between member states is only likely to grow as huge sums of money start to flow. Even before the JTM facility was approved, Vienna began pushing the V4 to promise that the contributions of Austrian taxpayers would not end up helping to populate the neighbourhood with nuclear reactors. Unsurprisingly, the appeal was roundly rebuffed.