Year XXIX, 1997, Number 1, Page 42

 

 

EUROPE AND THE ENERGY QUESTION AFTER CHERNOBYL
 
 
After the serious accident in Chernobyl and the alarmed reaction of public opinion, healthy reflection on the energy question is underway in all European countries. The decision taken by the SPD’s Nuremberg Congress “to scrap nuclear energy”, with a ten-year programme for gradual changeover to alternative resources, primarily coal, has triggered off quite a debate. The political resolution approved by the Nuremberg congress endorsed the document entitled “Transition towards safe energy without the use of nuclear energy”, which was drawn up by a special commission appointed by the SPD leadership. Anyone assessing the political consequences of this energy programme will be struck by a number of ambiguities. Germany (and perhaps Great Britain) can certainly rely on national coal reserves. But other European countries cannot do the same, since they would have to accept increased reliance on external supply if they decided to accept the policy passively. It is also admitted that the changeover to the increased use of coal will increase sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide pollution by at least 20 per cent over the current rate. But will this polluted air stop at Germany’s borders? And what would happen if all the European countries adopted the same policy?
In actual fact, the Chernobyl accident does not seem to have taught much to European political parties. The first and most basic fact which can be the only starting point for a serious debate on the energy policies of the future is that pollution has no borders. Any national energy plan which is not an integral part of a coherent European (and in the final instance worldwide) energy plan is doomed to failure. No European state can currently guarantee its citizens a safe energy supply, adequate environmental protection and enough fuel resources for development, without the support of other countries in the Community.
But when we consider the European aspects of the SPD’s energy programme the perplexities increase. The SPD questions the Euratom Treaty, which the German social democrats claim should be used only to prevent other European countries from increasing their use of nuclear energy and “to guarantee the protection of health”. Nothing is, however, said about the need to reach a true Community energy policy and the means to achieve it. The future thus seems to remain vague.
It is not difficult to predict, on the basis of previous experience, what will be the result of this approach to the energy question. Given the Community’s current incapacity, national energy plans will continue to override all the calls made by the European institutions: the Commission and the Parliament. In actual fact, the Chernobyl accident has shaken international public opinion which becomes aware of a new dimension to the energy question, but without a European government which manifests the will to achieve an effective European policy, national plans paradoxically regain strength. The European energy issue will continue to drift hopelessly as it has done so far.
 
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Before considering the policies which could be developed at a European level with adequate instruments of government, it is worthwhile briefly retracing the path which has led the Community to the current stalemate. Few will recall that the Community was born precisely to resolve the problem of the common management of energy resources and strategic raw materials vital for European development and safety. In 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was set up with the purpose of creating a common European market in a few sectors which were crucial at the time for postwar economic recovery: at the beginning of the fifties coal represented 75 per cent of the Community’s energy consumption. Moreover, in 1957, together with the Common Market, Euratom was set up for the common management of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Euratom was justified by the fact that coal had now become an excessively expensive fuel (particularly in terms of the harmful social consequences of mining), so that it was appropriate to begin the process of replacing it completely over the coming decades. The Euratom Treaty provided all the instruments needed to implement an effective European policy for nuclear energy, and had European governments so desired, could easily have been extended to all other sources of energy. Moreover, the Treaty laid down that Euratom could “exercise the law of ownership on special fissile materials”. Thus, thanks to the recognized monopoly on all nuclear products imported and circulating within the Community, Euratom had the power to decide each country’s quota, the rates of growth of resources and new power stations, as well as common safety standards. In actual fact, however, the Euratom Treaty was never wholly applied, not least in those aspects which would have implied strong limitations on national sovereignty.
In those years, European states could still have illusions about their future. The abundance and the low price of oil made it possible to put off the changeover to nuclear technologies indefinitely. National energy plans were drawn up on the basis of the size of domestic natural resources and the safety requirements that they entailed. Insofar as there was a strong disparity in the decisions about energy in the different countries, the basic defect in the Community edifice also became clear: a Community without democratic legitimacy could not possibly take decisive decisions for the welfare and safety of European citizens.
The 1973 crisis showed how various structural data regarding the energy question had changed both at a European and world level. Oil had now replaced coal as the main source of energy for the Community, but unlike coal was almost entirely imported. In contrast to the ECSC years, the Community’s external reliance had worsened enormously and had lost all power to control either the costs or the supply of raw energy. In this situation of increased reliance, Europe also had to meet new international challenges. The Third World was vigorously demanding a fairer world distribution of resources and income. The Third World’s demands were and are understandable: industrialized countries with 22 per cent of the world’s population consume about 60 per cent of the energy available in the world. And since there is a strict correlation between per-capita income and per-capita energy consumption, at least in countries undergoing different stages of development, the industrial growth of the Third World is unthinkable without greater availability of energy resources. Finally, tensions have also arisen between rich countries. The growth requirements of those countries which had the earliest industrialization, now projected towards the so-called postindustrial society in which working hours can be steadily reduced thanks to greater productivity, give rise to greater energy consumption (energy is potential work). It is well-known that postindustrial society is characterized by the size of the population actively committed to the service sector, where per-capita energy consumption is on average higher than in the rest of the economy.
In this new world, struggling to lay its hands on scarce resources, Europe has given no unitary or coherent reply. Each country has followed a different logic. France and Germany have gone for nuclear energy, Great Britain for North Sea oil, Italy for Arab countries’ oil.
 
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After these structural changes, and after the failure of the previous Community policies, it is now vital to face up to the energy question in new terms. It is no longer possible to draw up a serious energy policy for the European Community without the active participation of the political and social forces or without the European Parliament, the only legitimate representative of European citizens, acting as a watchdog over the European executive.
The Draft Treaty for European Union approved by the European Parliament on February 14, 1984, could, if accepted by the European governments, make it possible to turn the Community into a federation, with effective powers as regards currency, economy, energy and environmental safety. As regards energy policy, Art. 53, t) of the Draft Treaty runs as follows: “In the field of energy, action by the Union shall be designed to ensure security of supplies, stability on the market of the Union and, to the extent that prices are regulated, a harmonized pricing policy compatible with fair competitive practices. It shall also be designed to encourage the development of alternative and renewable energy sources, to introduce common technical standards for efficiency, safety, the protection of the environment and of the population, and to encourage the exploitation of the European sources of energy”.
On this basis, a European government could have tackled the different aspects of the energy question in the following way.
a) Safety of supply. This is a decisive problem for Europe which relies on outside energy sources for about 45 per cent of its needs (though in some countries, such as Italy, it is as much as 85 per cent). To protect themselves from blackmail over supplies, various European states, such as France, have oriented their policies towards nuclear energy. For Europe the problem of the safety of supplies coincides essentially with its capacity to face up to the North-South dialogue, i.e. to draw up serious co-operation policies with Third World countries. In prospect, federalists cannot fail to point out that for years they have been calling on the Community to undertake a great European Marshall Plan for Africa and the Middle East, which has the priority objective of stimulating the economic, industrial and social development of these peoples in a few decades. The European Union (which could use the ECU as an international currency) would have the financial, technological and political capacity to carry out this historical undertaking which would ensure progressive stabilization and pacification of the Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and African regions.
b) Research for alternative energies. Europe is the macro-region of the world with the greatest industrial and population density. For this reason, the use of “dirty” energies such as coal-fired and nuclear fission power stations causes damage and risks of contamination for the environment to a much greater extent than countries such as the USSR and the USA where the dispersion of the population and industry is greater. The search for “clean” alternative energy sources is thus of vital significance for Europe. But in this respect the political division of Europe has played a damaging role. The member states often finance competing projects thus contributing to the waste of resources, since no national state any longer has the independent capacity to develop large scale advanced technologies. The resources dedicated by the Community to research and development in the field of solar energy and nuclear fusion, the “clean” energies of the future, are barely a third of the USSR’s and the USA’s research funds and employees in this field.
c) Safety and environment. It is now clear, as the example of Cattenom in addition to Chernobyl shows, that there is no sense in establishing safety standards in a narrow national framework. Only a European government, with effective powers responsible to the European Parliament and sustained by political forces and public opinion, will progressively be able to impose adequate and uniform measures in the entire Community even on the most reluctant countries.
d) Energy and defence. Any European energy programme is destined in the long term to failure unless the problem of common European defence is tackled. France abandoned Euratom when she began to build her own force de frappe. More generally, it should be noticed that the boundaries between civil and military nuclear uses are often imprecise and that defence of one’s independence is practically impossible without absolute control of strategic energy resources.
The choice contained in the Draft Treaty for European Union is a transitory period. Once the economic and monetary Union has been achieved, the European Parliament will assume responsibility for concrete proposals on the stages and the ways in which a common European defence policy can be achieved.
e) Transition to “clean” energy. Ever since the fifties, the changeover to nuclear fission energy has been conceived of as a transitional programme to suppress the growing energy needs of industrialized society in view of the adoption of “clean” energies, which it was forecast would be introduced before the year 2000. But this “transition” risks becoming a definitive choice because of the meagre human and financial resources made available throughout the world for the search for alternative energy. The superpowers have preferred to concentrate their efforts on the increase in military arsenals and Europe has proved utterly incapable of tackling the problem. The experience after the 1973 crisis has shown that industrialized countries manage to maintain a constant degree of development and welfare either at the expense of the Third World, given their greater purchasing power, or resorting to a growing brainless use of “dirty” nuclear energy. Chernobyl has definitively blown the whistle on the certainty which lay at the heart of the old energy policy.
A European government could also take the courageous decision “to scrap nuclear energy”, i.e. face up to the transition to new forms of energy without resorting to nuclear fission, on three conditions: 1) making it quite clear to Europeans what the costs are in terms of pollution — in the current situation the only alternative practicable is a greater use of coal and oil — or slackening economic development; 2) drawing up an effective plan for research into “clean and renewable” energies; 3) demanding that East European countries and the USSR adopt similar policies to contain nuclear energy or common safety standards (England and the Ukraine are just as far apart as the crow flies from Rome).
f) Europe and peace. The programme of transition to clean and renewable energies could be enormously accelerated if more money and talent were dedicated to it than is now the case, in a world dominated by the East-West conflict. For example, in the United States 70 per cent of research funds are for military projects. The nuclear fusion programme only gets 3.5 per cent of the resources which are to be destined to the SDI. Converting these resources currently destined to new arms research towards peaceful ends would become possible only insofar as Europe is able to achieve effective policies to overcome the current political-military bipolarism.
In this respect, the European government should take on the task of operating within the UN so that the problem of transition to clean and renewable energies is seen to be of vital importance for all mankind: on its solution depends the clean development of the most prosperous countries and the poorest countries’ hopes of industrialization.
The UN should thus put forward a great world research plan for renewable energy sources (solar energy and nuclear fusion), financed by all countries in proportion to their income in which scientists from every nation should take part. The results of this collective effort would be placed at the entire world’s disposal.
 
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The attempts which governments, stubbornly entrenched in defence of the national sovereignty and blind to the problems of the new postindustrial world, are making to get international agreements and cooperation policies to guarantee uniform standards of safety for power stations must be denounced for what they are: cheap tricks designed to hoodwink the public. Without a supranational power which can make governments comply with the agreements made, no government at the decisive moment will be forced to comply with them. The Euratom experience should be the touchstone when assessing the significance and effectiveness of every intemational agreement: any energy policy proposal will be able to become reality only on the basis of institutions which are more rather than less supranational than those of the current Community.
In conclusion, without the European Union it is impossible to tackle the energy question appropriately in Europe and lay the foundations for a worldwide solution. Anyone who objects that the Union is still a distant objective should recall that if the European Council in Luxembourg (December 1985) had decided otherwise, at this very moment Europe, instead of recriminating on its impotence, would already be able to discuss the appropriate means of implementing an effective energy policy. After Chernobyl, there are thus further reasons for going down the road to European Union without dilly-dallying.
 
Guido Montani

 

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