Christian Oliver

Oh dear. It’s like Fifa all over again.

How was it that the Americans managed to unearth all the rottenness in Volkswagen, Europe’s top carmaker? How come the Europeans were asleep at the wheel again?

That pretty much summed up the shame-faced mood at today’s session of the European Parliament’s environmental committee, where MEPs wanted lots of answers from the European Commission. And didn’t really get any.

Christofer Fjellner, a Swedish centre-right MEP, captured the spirit: “Of course it’s embarrassing that it’s the Americans that show us we have a problem. It could be telling that it is the Americans because in Europe, in member states, we are not up to the task of scrutinising our own heroes the way we should.” Read more

Christian Oliver

The Belchatow power station in central Poland, one of the largest coal-burning plants in the world

While Brussels winds down for the summer and preoccupies itself with finding new commissioners, there will be some very busy people left working on a climate policy conundrum that needs to be solved by autumn. We’ll be hearing quite a bit about it, so here at the Brussels Blog we’ve decided to give it a name: The Polish Puzzle.

By October, the EU needs to agree a target for reducing greenhouse gases by 2030. This is one of the most critical numbers for the determining the course of European industry over the next 15 years, so it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The commission has proposed a cut of 40 per cent from 1990 levels.

Poland, which derives about 85 per cent of its energy from coal, does not like this target one bit. The alternative – switching to cleaner gas – could make it more vulnerable to imports from Russia, which would be anathema in the current geopolitical environment. Unless one side gives, a climate deal by October could prove elusive. Read more

Christian Oliver

When looking for scapegoats for the EU’s energy crisis and our dependence on Russian gas, it is all too easy to attack “district heating”.

District heating is the main way that cities are heated in eastern Europe and the Soviet-era infrastructure can often be wastefully inefficient, as we write about in a story today.

But don’t write it off too quickly. The truth is that western Europe is probably going to see a lot more of this technology in the next decade as it rethinks its urban energy consumption. Read more

By Christian Oliver

Expectations from the EU’s 2030 energy and climate targets: The EU will on Wednesday propose a series of energy and climate targets that will have a profound impact on how the continent generates its power. The overarching goals will be accompanied by proposals on the development of shale gas and measures to rescue the EU’s carbon market, which has fallen into disarray. The measures are being hotly contested as the targets are seen as vital to determining power prices and industrial competitiveness.

Early drafts of the package and people close to the talks suggest that the following are the most likely outcomes: Read more

Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.

In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial. Read more

Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, proposed tweaking the biofuels policy last year

Among the EU’s less successful policies, the one governing biofuels looms as a particular case study in unintended consequences.

Five years ago, member states agreed to binding targets requiring each country to derive 10 per cent of all transport fuel from renewables by 2020. Those targets were meant to speed the adoption of environmentally-friendly biofuels and were part of a broader campaign by Brusselsto claim the lead in the fight against global warming.

These days, that policy is a mess. The increased demand for crop-based biofuels – made from corn, rape and soya, for example – has been blamed for a surge in world food prices. It also appears to contribute to deforestation as farmers in far corners of the world chop down rainforests to plant biofuel crops.

The EU is now seeking to correct that. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, made a new proposal last year that aims to phase out crop-based biofuels in favour of cleaner ones derived from waste products and algae, among other substances. The European parliament’s environment committee last week voted through its own version of the draft legislation.

But it seems even the revised biofuels policy may have its own unintended consequences, including a brewing fight between Europe’s oleochemicals industry – the folks who use processed animal fats to produce everything from lubricants to lipstick – and their suppliers. Read more

A few weeks ago, the EU agreed an historic overhaul of its troubled common fisheries policy, setting binding deadlines to end decades of over-fishing that have depleted stocks from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

But just when it seemed safe to go back in the water, the European parliament’s fisheries committee threatened to take a bite out of the reform on Wednesday. By a 12 to 11 margin, the committee approved an amendment allowing the use of up to €1.6bn in EU funds to help build new fishing boats.

The subsidies fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the EU’s 83,000-vessel fleet is already far too large, and in need of a drastic cut – some say by half – in order to allow stocks to recover.

“For anyone with a brain this is completely outrageous and very difficult to understand,” said Markus Knigge, a fisheries advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust, citing estimates that the money could result in 19,000 new boats. Read more

During his inaugural address on Monday, US President Barack Obama committed himself to a European priority that was shoved to the background during his first term in office: Fighting climate change.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Those words were music to the ears of many in Brussels, who had assumed – wrongly, it turns out – that the White House was poised four years ago to join the EU’s campaign to forge an ambitious global climate treaty.

The irony of Obama’s climate pivot is that it was announced on the same day when the price of carbon in the EU’s emissions trading scheme fell to an all-time low, offering a distressing reminder about the disarray in a market that is the centrepiece of Europe’s climate policy. Read more

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the tidal wave that unleashed a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility and forced a profound shift in Europe’s nuclear debate.

Within weeks of the disaster, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decided to switch course and phase out the country’s nuclear plants – a move that was subsequently copied by Switzerland and Belgium.

Talk of a nuclear revival that once filled the air in Italy and other member states – encouraged by the industry and supportive governments – has been dashed. Even in France, Europe’s nuclear champion, public opinion has turned increasingly negative.

But in spite of Fukushima, one European Union member state has lost none of its nuclear ardour: LithuaniaRead more

Peter Spiegel

Barroso, left, at Thursday's news conference with Denmark's Thorning-Schmidt in Copenhagen

A good chunk of the Brussels press corps has been in Copenhagen this week for the formal kick-off of Denmark’s turn at the EU’s 6-month rotating presidency. Days of back-to-back ministerial briefings and ceremonial events have focused intensively on the Danish government’s “green growth” agenda – down to the green skirt-clad Danish National Girls Choir performing “Plant a Tree” at a concert attended by EU bigwigs Wednesday night.

But when it came to today’s official handoff of the EU reins to Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, there was a slight hiccup: Denmark’s Vestas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, chose the same day to announce it was cutting 2,335 jobs – most of them in its home country. Read more

Is it possible that people are overreacting to the crisis at Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear facility? Read more

The European commission has asked member states to begin testing imported Japanese food for increased radiation levels, although officials believe that health risks for consumers are low.

That assessment is based on the fact that Japanese agricultural exports to the European Union are limited to begin with – particularly from the affected regions. Moreover, the disruption and devastation from the earthquake and tsunami are likely to reduce those exports even further. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Among the hundreds of confidential US diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks thus far, very few have dealt with Washington’s relations with the EU. But occasionally, EU leaders have popped up in summaries of other international events in which they have only tangentially been involved.

The most pointed EU-related revelation to be released thus far comes in a 2008 cable from the American embassy in Moscow following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s heated September 8 confrontation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia.

The US account of the “at times…openly hostile” meeting, where Sarkozy “at one point grabbed FM Lavrov by the lapels and called him a liar in very strong terms,” has been reported widely. Less noticed, however, was Moscow’s reception of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.

In a section labeled secret and “noforn,” meaning it was not to be shown to non-American officials, an unnamed French source retells how “the Russians treated Barroso harshly and condescendingly, and tried to exclude him from many of the sessions.” Read more

Tony Barber

A wall of resistance from European Union governments and industry stands in the way of the efforts of Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate action commissioner, to secure a pledge from the 27-nation bloc to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by even more than it is already committed to doing.

Hedegaard contends that the EU can afford to set itself higher targets, because Europe’s recent recession – the worst in its history – reduced economic activity and so slashed the cost of meeting the goals set in 2008.  The EU’s basic target is a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels.  Hedegaard would like to raise the target to 30 per cent, thereby maintaining Europe’s self-image as the frontrunner in world efforts to tackle climate change. Read more

If you’ve been breathing a bit easier of late, there may be a reason: carbon dioxide emissions covered by the European Union’s cap-and-trade system fell a remarkable 11 per cent last year, according to preliminary data released by the European Commission. That is the biggest one-year fall since the emissions trading system began five years ago.

Unfortunately, the drop was not owing to the sort of forward-looking, green technology investments so frequently touted by Commission president José Manuel Barroso. Instead it was an unintended gift from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, which has slowed industrial activity. In weight loss terms, this is a bit like shedding 5 kilos through the accident of a stomach flu as opposed to the sustained virtue of diet and exercise. Read more

Tony Barber

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

Tony Barber

The biggest fights at European Union summits are usually about money.  It’s no different this time.  At their final summit of 2009, the EU’s 27 national leaders have been wrestling in Brussels with the question of what contributions each country should make to a “fast-start” fund to help developing countries address climate change.

It looks as if EU governments will come up with an offer of about €2bn a year – much of it coming from rich countries such as France, Sweden and the UK - for the three-year period of 2010 to 2012.  “Anything above €2bn will be an impressive offer,” European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said this morning. Read more

Tony Barber

On Tuesday a numerically impressive delegation of Europeans will be in Washington for the first formal US-European Union summit since Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration last January.  Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister, will be there in his capacity as leader of the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  So will Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.  So will Javier Solana, the EU’s head of foreign policy.  So will Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external affairs commissioner.  So will José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president – and from what I hear, a few other bigwigs are going along for the ride as well.

This is quite a turnout.  It would be nice to think it reflects an exceptionally warm and constructive relationship between the Obama administration and its EU allies.  But as a timely new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, the real picture is less rosy.  “To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” write the authors, Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro. Read more

Tony Barber

According to an opinion poll, more than half of Denmark’s population has little or no confidence that world leaders will strike an agreement on fighting climate change at December’s landmark United Nations summit in Copenhagen.  It is just a hunch, but I reckon one impulse behind this pessimism is the widespread European suspicion that China, which recently overtook the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will play an unconstructive role at the talks.

What if this suspicion is unfounded? Read more

Tony Barber

What should be the top five priorities of the next European Commission?

1) Top of my list is the defence, and if possible the strengthening, of the single European market.  This is the European Union’s bedrock achievement.  It secures prosperity for its citizens, and it underpins the EU’s collective weight in the world.  Without the single market, the EU would lose not merely its cohesion but its very reason for existence.  The single market is under strain at present because of the emergency measures taken over the past year to prop up Europe’s banking system.  These have, in effect, suspended the EU’s state aid rules in this sector.  The Commission will need to be tough in making sure that EU governments do not manipulate the rules as the emergency measures are gradually withdrawn.  Meanwhile, it should continue to press the case for integrating and liberalising the EU’s service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all EU economic activity. Read more