A Conversation with Frans Timmermans
Are we witnessing the birth of “war ecology”? Will the Kremlin’s use of gas as a weapon have an effect on perceptions of the transition and, more broadly, of European action?
We must realize that Europe must be sovereign when it comes to energy and that our sovereignty can only be built on renewable energy. We do not have oil, we have very little gas, very little coal and we must face very serious climate issues. It is therefore through wind, solar and geothermal energy that we will be able to build our sovereignty, without being dependent on Russian gas or other hydrocarbon exporters. The green hydrogen market will be a global market, for example, but it will be a very diversified market, which will not give certain countries the opportunity to blackmail others.
Is gas still a viable transitional energy as a number of European countries, including Germany, claim?
Yes, of course. At the Commission we have always assumed that natural gas would be a transitional energy because the emissions from natural gas are much lower than from coal, for example. For some countries, which have to abandon coal, gas is a key transition energy. What has changed is that today, this gas can no longer come from Russia, which for Europe means finding other sources at prices that will certainly be higher.
The last few months have also shown that the transition to renewables is going much faster than before. There is a scenario where certain countries will perhaps continue to use coal for a little while longer and then immediately switch to renewables instead of using natural gas as a transitional source.
Furthermore, gas will not only play this role in Europe, but in Africa as well.
What do you think of the opposition to nuclear power that seemed to be a consensus in Germany during the Merkel era? Was this a strategic mistake?
I fully understand the German government’s reasoning under Merkel’s leadership, as well as the French government’s position – it is not up to the Commission to dictate the energy mix of Member States. Our duty is to enforce the 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, but it is up to the member states to decide how to do it. Having said that, we can clearly see that, in the context of the war and at a time when natural gas has become a weapon for Vladimir Putin, the German government is reversing certain positions — this is also the case with nuclear energy.
Could Europe manage without Russian gas this winter and with what strategy?
Yes, we will be able to manage without Russian gas. We have succeeded in organizing our supply; our reserves are filled to 82.5%, which is a sort of feat.
Which countries are most vulnerable?
The most vulnerable countries are those that are highly dependent on Russian gas, particularly the Central European countries, but also Germany. At the same time, European solidarity as we have organized it will be able to avoid the worst scenarios. Barring an exceptionally cold winter, I believe we are prepared. In reality, the challenge will be to organize ourselves for next year, since we still had Russian gas this year. We have to be prepared and assume that next year there will simply be no more deliveries from Russia.
In the first weeks of the war, many analysts argued that if Europe succeeded in adopting an embargo on Russian hydrocarbons, the war would have ended, as the foundations of Putin’s regime would have been undermined. Today, it is Russia itself that is halting gas exports. What have we not understood?
We must not make the mistake of believing that the European sanctions have not had and are not having any effect. They are profoundly transforming Russian society and its economy. I lived in Russia; I know the country quite well. The advantage of an autocracy that controls information so strongly is that you can manipulate the truth, and this is Putin’s game. He wants to create the impression that we would be greatly weakened by using hydrocarbons as a weapon, and that he is stronger.
Beyond the manipulation, the context is clear: Russia is isolated and seriously weakened. At the same time, it has enormous revenue thanks to hydrocarbon markets. I never believed that an embargo on Russian gas would bring Putin to his knees, nor that the war would end after only a few weeks. The war will be prolonged and an autocracy is able to hide things and put incredible pressure on citizens, who no longer dare to speak out. After twenty years of lies, most Russians don’t know what to believe anymore. And then there is fear; opposition is arrested and locked up.
European governments have so far opted for limited and national measures to deal with rising energy prices. What are the possibilities today of coordination at the European level, especially in the short term, in order to confront rising prices?
There are already measures at the national level taken by some member states. In the short term, we must now organize European solidarity. We can clearly see that rising energy prices weigh more heavily on those who have very little to spend. Others are able to pay and to bear this burden. It is a matter of redistribution. We will be making proposals along these lines, to find ways of relieving the pressure on the most vulnerable sections of society. One proposal — supported also by the German and French governments — would be to ensure that the energy sector’s windfall profits are redistributed to businesses and citizens.
Is a review of the electricity market’s architecture on the table? The accumulation of political interventions in the energy markets is stretching the idea that energy can circulate through markets to its limits. Do you think we should recognize that energy is not like any other commodity?
We must be very cautious.
It took us thirty years to construct the electricity market as it is structured today. At the Commission, we are convinced that there are reasons to re-examine this architecture because the market has changed, notably with the increased share of renewable energies in the energy mix. This is leading us to re-examine the balance between the different energy sources and this could lead to proposals aimed at striking a new balance between the portion of the price coming from renewables and the portion coming from carbon-based energy sources. The main takeaway is that the price of electricity should no longer be tied to the price of natural gas to the same extent.
The link between spending to protect consumers from rising energy prices and European budgetary rules is now clear. Does the Commission’s work plan include revising the Stability and Growth Pact?
Not at the moment. But we will obviously face, as we did during the pandemic, a particularly difficult situation. The rules are the rules, but the circumstances are fundamentally different. I recently spoke to the head of the IMF and she reiterated that we will need massive, global investment to get the economy back on track. This means rethinking certain rules without pretending that from now on money will cost nothing and that we will have unlimited access to new resources. Everything we spend, we will have to pay back. But if we don’t invest in productive change, we will be placing an impossible burden on our children.
Is it possible to imagine a new post-war recovery plan?
Yes. We will experience a very difficult period, and I fear that we do not fully understand the difficulties that lie ahead. But I believe this will be followed by a period of remarkable recovery. If we consider the potential of a country like Ukraine, the potential of renewable energies, the speed with which, for example, industry is adapting, whether it is cars, steel, or computing, I am still optimistic.
Some member states are making significant investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Is this a danger to climate goals?
We will be using coal a bit longer than expected, even though at the moment it is very expensive and there is not much of it. With regard to fossil infrastructure, if we build infrastructure for natural gas and then make it accessible for green hydrogen later, that is an investment I can totally understand. We are going to try to push those who still need to invest in natural gas infrastructure, in order to provide heat for homes and industry, to prepare that infrastructure for green hydrogen transport.
The European Union had given itself a framework for action: the Green Deal. Is the EU responding to geopolitical changes — from the war in Ukraine to the U.S.-China rivalry — by following the path of carbon neutrality it set out to achieve by 2050?
When we developed and presented the Green Deal in 2019, before the pandemic and before the war in Ukraine, we had to face criticisms and accusations, from people who said, in essence, “It’s a good Green Deal, but come back in ten years and we’ll see”. Over the course of these crises, we have been able to prove that the Green Deal was also a response to the pandemic because we had to rebuild our society, we had to rebuild our economy, we had to transform our industry. We were able to prove that the energy transition and the circular economy were job creators, that they reenergized our economy while also returning Europe to the forefront of global industrial development. With Russia’s war in Ukraine, the element of the Green Deal that has become even more important is the transition to renewable energies. Beyond its objective of reducing emissions, the Green Deal has become the tool to create real European energy sovereignty.
Is the energy crisis weakening Europe’s position as a climate leader?
I have just returned from a G20 summit in Bali and I do not feel that we have lost our leadership position at all. We affirmed it at COP 26 in Glasgow and we are building bridges between the various positions, for example concerning the need to increase spending on adaptation to compensate for losses. Our position is halfway between that of the U.S. and of developing countries, and I think we have a certain amount of credibility, but I hope we can increase it further. More than half of our spending on climate policy goes towards adaptation. Member states must also be prepared to spend a little more on losses and damage caused by climate change, because that is what developing countries are asking for. The tragic fact is that those who are suffering the most from the effects of climate change are not those who created it. Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions. There is a responsibility on the part of certain developed countries, which are responsible for 30% or 20% of emissions, or the European Union which is responsible for 8% of global emissions. We are the ones who for two hundred years benefited from coal, then oil, and then gas to create our wealth.
The COP 27 in November will bring the issue of financing climate action in developing countries to the fore. How will the EU position itself?
I repeat, once again, that we must accept our responsibility. I believe that the European Union is assuming its responsibility; we are already responsible for one third of all global spending on adaptation and climate policy, but we must do more. We must also guarantee investments in these countries, which will be made easier if we are also able to invest in adaptation. At the same time, if we don’t reduce our emissions — and this is the G20’s responsibility, because 80% of the world’s emissions come from the 20 G20 countries — then no amount of money will be enough to confront the climate crisis. If we exceed 2° C and we head towards 3 or 4° C, then the crisis will be so acute that we will not be able to respond to it. There is always this relationship between mitigation and adaptation. Developed countries have an additional responsibility to do what we have promised, and also to respond constructively to the demands of developing countries for the losses and damages caused by climate change.
Why are African partners not aligned with the European Union? What is the Commission’s strategy to counter this, and to what extent does the fight against climate change and access to energy play a role?
I recently spoke with four African presidents and indeed, you are right, they are not 100 % aligned with us on the Russian war in Ukraine. Why? Because they have concerns about the supply of grain, energy policy, as well as security policy because the Russians are particularly active in Africa at the moment.
I believe that the most important thing in the short term is to show our solidarity, especially with regard to food. But what is even more important is to facilitate investments in African countries to help them increase energy production. Six hundred million Africans do not have access to electricity today, and it would be a revolution to finally be able to give them access through photovoltaics and wind energy. Secondly, we must help African countries to make this energy transition, including through the use of natural gas. There should be no taboo between Europe and Africa on this.
Is the European political community a useful framework for organizing the continent? What could its contribution be in the climate field?
Yes, I think we need to create a forum, a place, an agora, where all the European countries can meet to talk about common issues. I find it very difficult to see how, for example, we can create a renewable energy space in Europe without the British or the Norwegians. This of course surpasses the limits of the European Union. I also find it very difficult to see how we can talk about security in Europe without having discussions with the Ukrainians or the countries of the Caucasus, and especially the Balkan countries that are candidates for accession. I believe that President Macron’s initiative is useful for security in Europe and also for the ecological and energy transition.
What does the geopolitical conversion of the Union mean? What is its logic and what is its perspective?
I believe that as politicians we are responsible for the security and prosperity of our citizens. What is the purpose of a security policy? To avoid war, to create stable international relations, to provide the possibility of stable economic development. To ensure social peace and to ensure that all our citizens have access to development and economic growth. This is the objective of our policy, and if we want to achieve this, we must address the climate crisis.
Do you share the growing sentiment in Washington of a “new Cold War” with China?
No, I don’t share this idea. Our systems are different, our vision of both society and democracy is different from that of the Communist Party in China. But this does not mean that we are in a state of confrontation or Cold War. I still see potential for cooperation with Beijing, though we should be neither excessive nor naive. I believe that Europe needs to determine what exactly its own position is to avoid becoming dependent on China, as we have done with Russia. China can be a partner in the climate field, as well as in the field of economic development and international trade, which is very important to us.
Is there a risk of becoming dependent on other regions of the world for rare earth metals?
This risk always exists, but it also depends on our ability to develop new products which are less dependent on rare earth and to diversify our trade relations. I believe that the experience of Putin’s war has taught us to avoid one sided dependence, which weakens us. I believe that one of our continent’s most remarkable assets is its ability to reinvent itself and to invent new technologies and new products. I can already see that in the field of batteries, for example, we are moving very quickly to develop recyclable batteries produced in Europe. I have no doubt that we will do the same with solar panels.
This is a difficult task at a time when war is ravaging Ukraine. How do you think the Union’s relationship with Russia should be structured?
This will continue for a very long time until Russia finds an answer itself: where does it want to go? Who will be its friends? What alliances will it form?
I believe that we can help this process by showing how Russia can be part of the European family, which means respecting the rule of law and respecting democracy. At present, we are very far from that, but Russia will not disappear; it will continue to be part of the European continent. We must therefore also make an effort of imagination, an intellectual effort, and also, I would say, a political effort to imagine a constructive relationship between the Union and Russia. For the moment, the course chosen by President Putin precludes such development.
Should Russia be given a place in constructing the security architecture in Europe — and under what conditions?
Russia already has in place a structure that was established in the 1970s through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which developed into an organization, the OSCE, but Russia has preferred to isolate itself from it.
The tragedy of Russia is that it isolates itself. There have been countless proposals for cooperation from European countries. We must now wait for Russia to take a cooperative stance and to abandon this domineering posture. There is a philosophical difference between us and the Russians on what defines security and cooperation. For Russia, security lies in exporting instability to regions outside Russia — it dominates its neighborhood by creating instability on its borders. The European vision is the exact opposite; we create stability by exporting our stability and growth. This is what we did after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this is how we changed Central and Eastern Europe. And this is how we must continue.
Ramona Bloj, A Conversation with Frans Timmermans, Sep 2022,
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