Crises continue to batter the European Union. Week after week, member states’ leaders fly in to Brussels for yet another extraordinary European summit to discuss the eurozone crisis, the Arab uprisings and the Japanese nuclear catastrophe.
But is this all bad? Europe seems to act only when faced with an emergency. It took the crisis in the eurozone to jump-start moves towards much-needed changes to economic governance, and events in Egypt and Tunisia to force us to look hard at our neighbourhood policy.
Similarly, the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant should be treated as a call to action on nuclear power, but also on energy policy in general. Poland, which is preparing to build its first nuclear power station, should use its forthcoming presidency of the Council of Ministers to initiate major changes.
Faced with the fallout from Fukushima, we can all agree – whether we are for or against nuclear energy – that implementing the highest possible safety standards is of paramount importance. Since the consequences of any catastrophe in Europe would be, by definition (and as Chernobyl showed), on a Europe-wide scale, these standards must be prepared and implemented at the European level. The Euratom treaty, written more than 50 years ago, does not reflect this adequately.
The treaty gives the European Commission too weak a role. The ‘stress tests’ for nuclear power plants introduced post-Fukushima are voluntary, because the Commission lacks the powers to make them mandatory.
Its nuclear experts can make recommendations, but the sanctions possible under the Euratom treaty apply only to the security of nuclear fuel (to prevent proliferation), not to safety standards. As EU law stands, all powers rest with the member states; the Commission has no powers to take binding decisions.
That should change, with the Commission being given the power to inspect, monitor and, if stress tests show a need, to close plants.
If more rights and competences are moved to the European level, the European Parliament should be given co-decision powers. In effect, the ordinary legislative procedure under the Lisbon treaty should be extended to the Euratom treaty. This could be done through the adoption of a simplified treaty amendment (as used recently to add 18 MEPs), or as part of a complete reform of the Euratom treaty. Reform is the better option.
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The first step in such a reform should be to re-draft the 2009 nuclear safety directive so that safety recommendations made by the International Atomic Energy Agency become mandatory European rules. The Commission should have the right to enforce those rules. At the same time, discussion should start on transforming the Euratom Supply Agency into a European nuclear safety agency.
Finally, the catastrophe at Fukushima should do more than start a debate on the future of nuclear energy; it should lead to a debate on the future of European energy policy. Should we continue to address aspects of energy policy – on security of gas supplies, targets for renewables, infrastructure projects and so on – in piecemeal fashion, or should we move towards a visionary grand project of a European Energy Community?
Reform of the Euratom treaty could serve as the basis for discussion about a European Energy Community. It already includes many of the principles needed for such a new community, from common rules on energy research and an internal energy market to the joint purchasing of energy supplies and safety regulations.
As Euratom also has a legal personality, those member states wanting to move towards an energy community could do so without reforming the other treaties.
We are now in an era when any debate about one energy source becomes a debate about the broader energy mix and about topics such as efficiency and climate change. On climate change, we debate and negotiate internationally as the EU. Energy policy is being Europeanised. This crisis should give Europe the courage to take the next step.
Lena Kolarska-Bobinska is a Polish centre-right MEP and a member of the Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee.