Jaak Aaviksoo: Coronavirus lessons for energy policy

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Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

European Union rules and agreements do not ensure sufficient and sensible cooperation of member states in critical moments and there is a considerable risk that vital crises will boil down to the principle of "every man for himself," Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

The global coronavirus crisis, while currently in an acute phase in Estonia, is probably receding.

Systematic immunization can hopefully ensure a long-term solution, while all other measures that help keep the virus from spreading remain topical. The latter have been adopted based on the principle of trial and error in different countries and recent and diverse experience deserves analysis and conclusions to help the world weather new viral outbreaks (mutations) in the future.

It is telling just how unprepared almost all countries were and how fickle and self-centered their policies. All of it holds a major lesson also for other walks of life.

National fears quickly overcome European solidarity

I would linger on the international dimension of countries' coronavirus policies, especially as concerns the European Union.

Countries' first steps rather universally included stricter border control, air traffic restrictions and border closures, whereas what is remarkable is that all of these decisions were made based on the principle of "total national sovereignty." In other words, without EU-level or even mutual consultations, not to mention valid agreements if only on the theoretical level.

Countries even had trouble notifying neighbors of decisions in good time. This result is as troubling as it is unsurprising. And it is most definitely educational.

Allow me to draw two conclusions from this. First of all, the level of mutual trust in Europe is not enough to manage such threats collectively. And secondly, that domestic democratic pressure, especially in time-critical matters, does not leave governments with enough time for decisions in common interests. National fears overpower European solidarity.

It would be unfair to think that politicians on the EU and member state levels do not perceive the problem. Efforts for a common vaccine policy and the Recovery Fund are clear signs, while difficulties are visible when it comes to execution.

Criticism in almost all EU countries following the vaccination success of Israel, UK and USA led to the deeply controversial decisions of closing the border of Northern Ireland to avoid vaccine leaks. Without consulting with Ireland or regard for the country's rather bloody near history. Luckily, this unacceptable mistake was remedied quickly.

A conclusion in summary – European Union rules and agreements do not ensure sufficient and sensible cooperation of member states in critical moments and there is a considerable risk that vital crises will boil down to the principle of "every man for himself." The same conclusion manifested as the refugee crisis progressed.

Coming now to energy policy

Power is an existential resource for modern societies – a week of freezing temperatures and no power is worse than a year of Covid. And people, along with their democratically elected governments behave correspondingly. For better and for worse.

A good example comes from Texas that was recently hit by a cold spell and where the price of electricity grew a hundredfold. One of the first decisions made brought energy export restrictions, while good old fossil fuels were used to ward off total disaster. These facts should be kept in mind when planning Estonia's energy policy.

Good power links are not enough in a situation where electricity is in short supply on the other side of the border or when decision-makers feel they need it more. To make sure that does not happen, we need far more effective international agreements than we have now before we can give up our independent production capacity.

We are talking about a lot more than superficial faith in the omnipotence of the market or political promises that – as we now know – tend to go out the window at critical junctions, much like free movement did in the virus crisis.

Energy security decisions need a special level of responsibility – energy is the oxygen, food, water and everything else one needs to stay alive in the modern world. This means that poor decisions in energy supply security inevitably have fatal consequences.

Before we can give up our own energy sources, we need to be sure of replacement mechanisms not just on paper and in our dreams but through agreements with enough surety and based on sufficient production capacity that they cannot be grounded with a single minister's signature like planes were in the coronavirus crisis. Even that is not enough as we need mechanisms for bringing such agreements into force that the EU has not even conceived yet.

Bravado and enthusiasm are not enough no matter how noble the goal as one needs a clear and capable understanding of what can be done and how to do it. Moving toward EU climate targets should therefore proceed based on a clear position – of course, but only with a common, legible and credibly executable energy policy.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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