EU speeds up single energy policy

The European Union is rapidly moving toward the formation of a common energy policy; six months ago, or even less, this would have seemed unthinkable. «In energy we do not have a tool similar to the one in trade policy; energy policy is at the hands of each member state,» EU Energy Commissioner Andris Pielbags had categorically told Kathimerini last summer. Now a debate on the prospect of a common energy policy has begun in the European Council. Every week a new step is made in this direction, although it still is too early to know how fast this process will be and what form it will take. «The possibility of a common energy policy in Europe is an issue discussed more and more,» said Belgian politician Philippe Maystadt, who is president of the European Investment Bank (EIB). «I believe that European governments are increasingly realizing it will be too hard for an isolated country to sufficiently respond to this challenge,» he added, referring to the debate that has begun in the European Council. Maystadt, who is 58, knows what he is talking about. A professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, he has served for more than 18 years as a minister and alternate prime minister. He has also won elected terms as a deputy or senator that total 22 years and has headed the EIB since 2000. In December his term was renewed for another six years. «The possibility of a common energy policy in Europe is an issue discussed more and more,» he said. «I believe that European governments are increasingly realizing it will be too hard for an isolated country to sufficiently respond to this challenge.» He said he believes there must be a common approach by EU members because such an approach would make the EU stronger in tough negotiations with energy suppliers. «If every state attempts to negotiate with suppliers on its own we will be powerless, but if we speak as one voice we will be powerful,» he said. When asked whether the recent Russian-Ukrainian energy tussle was the reason for this policy swing, Maystadt said, «Yes, it was an awakening for certain people.» He laughed at that previous statement, but then he emphasized that the EU must develop a clear policy on this issue. «As regards EIB we can fund the essential infrastructures for energy transmission from different sources: from Russia, Central Asia and the Mediterranean,» he said. In this context Greece can have a key role. Energy policy keeps European bodies intensely busy and will «without a doubt» rise to the top of the EU agenda, Maystadt explains. The European bank emphasizes funding research on energy issues such as renewable energy sources as well as the basic research on nuclear fusion in the CERN program. Added value Moving on to his priorities during his second period at the helm of EIB, Maystadt suggests that the new strategy decided last June by the bank’s governors – that is the 25 EU finance ministers – is based on the idea that EIB must increase the «added value» in its activities. The aim of EIB is not profits, as it is not a commercial bank, but supporting the policy of the EU. «The question then is how we increase the added value of EIB interventions,» says its president and makes it clear that «this definitely means that in some cases we have to undertake more risk.» EIB now has the ability to take this extra step, as during Maystadt’s first term in office the modernization of risk management systems took place. «The bank is ready to undertake the increased risk and share it with its partners,» Maystadt says. This means easier funding for small and medium-sized enterprises, for research in private or public research centers and for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). At the same time it can accelerate the development of Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T) and Energy (TEN-E). In 2005 EIB issued loans of 47 billion euros in total, 42 billion of which were channeled within the EU and 5 billion outside the 25-member group. From this 5 billion euros, 2.2 billion euros were channeled to the Southern Mediterranean countries and 1.4 billion euros to the Balkans, the two regions Greece is mostly interested in. The proposal by the Commission and the EIB to the Council for the 2007-2013 period, as formed a few weeks ago, maintains the emphasis on these two regions, as Maystadt reveals. «These are two regions where we can develop a cooperation with the Greek banking sector, particularly in the Balkans where all major Greek banks have activities,» Maystadt argues. He had a meeting with Greek bank representatives for this very reason during a visit to Athens. Assisting PPP projects EIB can also offer significant help to PPPs, an issue that Athens is particularly interested in. Greece has experience with three big PPPs (Athens Airport, Attiki Odos, Rio-Antirio Bridge), but not with the smaller ones for which the legal framework was recently formed.The European bank may be the biggest financier of PPPs in Europe with a total of 20 billion euros mainly in the UK and also in Portugal, Italy and elsewhere. The characteristics of a proper PPP, notes Maystadt, are the long duration of a contract, the provision of a service (and not just the construction of a project), and sharing of risk between the public and the private bodies. «Unless there is risk-taking by the private body then this is not a real PPP,» he stresses, adding that «the right balance must be found anyway.» «Initially what we can do is offer technical assistance as we have great experience from PPP funding in other countries,» Maystadt says. «We want to accelerate the passing of experience in this domain from one country to another and our staff members with PPP experience from Britain, for instance, can cooperate on PPPs with authorities in other countries, without EIB necessarily having to fund them,» he states. In the next few months a PPP know-how center may be founded on pan-European level, following a request by many countries’ ministers. «We can offer advice so that mistakes made by others can be avoided and we do not have to rediscover the wheel. Certainly PPPs must adapt to the peculiarities of each country,» Maystadt says. «I know the Greek government is interested in PPPs in health and education as well as certain cultural programs.»

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