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Energy transition and accession to the EU: „Fundamentals first“ principle’s application in energy transition in the Western Balkans

The current year, 2023, has brought a number of novelties in the process of accession of the countries of the Western Balkans to the European Union. A substantial number of documents and statements of the highest officials of the European Union indicate that the EU enlargement issue has returned to the focus of the European institutions.

This may be a consequence of the geopolitical situation that arose with the outbreak and course of the war in Ukraine and other geopolitical circumstances. In this context, the issue of energy security of the European Union is not often mentioned, whereas issues related to transboundary pollution flows are rarely linked to the process of accession of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union (EU).

However, these are key issues. The citizens of the Western Balkans rightly expect that during the EU accession process the situation with their fundamental rights to life, health and a healthy environment will improve. Likewise, the institutions of the European Union are expected to actively and persistently influence the improvement of the rule of law in the countries that are candidates for EU membership.

Rule of law and energy transition

The EU has updated its methodology regarding the enlargement process by emphasizing the significance of the rule of law and the credibility of the enlargement process. This “fundamentals first” principle highlights the crucial role of these criteria. The rule of law carries significant weight in the EU accession negotiations. Accordingly, the EU should prioritize unwavering adherence to the rule of law across all policies and negotiation chapters. This imperative extends to areas concerning energy and environmental protection as well.

Coal-fired thermal power plants from the Western Balkans emit more sulphur dioxide into the air than all thermal power plants in the EU. Serbia annually emits more sulphur dioxide than Germany and Poland combined. The countries of the Western Balkans, which according to the provisions of the Energy Community Treaty had the obligation to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, emitted 577 thousand tons of sulphur dioxide into the air in 2022, 45 thousand tons more than in 2021.

Thermal power plants, such as the one in Pljevlje, which operates illegally after exceeding the limits of the number of operating hours, endanger the health of citizens and make a profit at the same time. The thermal power plant Morava in Svilajnac, which exceeded the permitted number of operating hours, continues to operate and endangers the health of citizens.

The Energy Community initiated proceedings against Montenegro in 2021 due to exceeding the number of operating hours in the thermal power plant in Pljevlje, and the procedure was initiated against Serbia at the end of October this year due to the thermal power plant in Morava.These emissions endanger the life and health of the citizens of the Western Balkans and the surrounding countries of the European Union.

This situation also represents a violation of the Energy Community Treaty, i.e., represents an example of insufficient rule of law and affects the life and health of the citizens of the Western Balkans as well as the citizens of the European Union.

Energy poverty and air pollution are issues of primary importance for the energy transition

Air pollution is further complicated by emissions from numerous individual furnaces and is directly related to energy poverty.

Solving the problem of extreme energy poverty is an essential issue of the energy transition. Poor families heat only one room on cold days and less than 8 square meters per household member – bellow the standard in prisons or hospitals. During extremely cold periods, these households have no choice but to use electricity for heating.

A similar situation arises in households that, due to old age or illness, are unable to obtain enough firewood. For these households, electricity during cold days is a matter of saving lives. There are more than half of such households, and their electricity consumption makes up about a quarter of the total consumption of electricity.

Moreover, a substantial number of households are on the verge of energy poverty. A small increase in energy prices or a small decrease in their income also brings these households into a state of energy poverty. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which energy poverty encompasses almost the entire population of the Western Balkans, either due to a dramatic increase in energy prices (similar to a 240% increase in firewood prices in 2022) or due to disruptions in security of supply. Both circumstances can have a direct effect in terms of increased mortality and the spread of infectious diseases.

Photo: Pixabay

The drastic increase in electricity consumption during cold days indicates that vulnerable families use electricity only when it is most necessary. In those cold periods, the load on the electrical grid is such that over a third of the total annual losses of the electrical grid are then formed. This increases costs for all citizens and the entire industry and increases the risk of breakdowns. This does not happen due to some mystical feature of the electrical grid that otherwise corresponds to European technical standards.

Therefore, the reform of the energy sector must be approached with great care, taking into account the economic, technical, social and health circumstances.

Are the problems in the implementation of the Energy Community Treaty and the need for sustainable investments in the energy transition recognized at the EU level?

This situation significantly limits the possibilities for investments. The countries of the Western Balkans and the energy companies owned by them can no longer go into debt at the expense of future revenues. The expected revenues will be barely enough to ensure regular maintenance of the equipment for a long time to come.

Without improving energy security and the competitiveness of electricity production, neither significant investments in the industry nor an increase in employment or household income can be expected. It is not difficult to conclude that the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, which the European Commission has recently been promoting, has no chance of success if the issue of investments in reliable energy supply is not resolved.

At this moment, the national product of the countries of the Western Balkans has a five times greater carbon intensity per unit of realized product than the average in the EU. This can get worse. If there would be an increase in the use of motor vehicles, which is necessary to pay off investments in highways, there would be an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

The removal of sulphur dioxide emissions from existing lignite power plants in the region, through flue-gas desulphurization installations, technologically implies an increase in CO2 emissions and an increase in production costs with an expected decrease in the national product. Bearing in mind the need to reduce CO2 emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement and the fact that lignite-fired power plants account for well over half of the total CO2 emissions in the region, the conclusion is that a quick replacement of these power plants is in fact the most effective solution.

For this purpose, an investment financing system is needed, which is based on the benefits that EU member countries can have from it. Reduced pollution, reduced impact on the life and health of EU citizens and opportunities for European industry, i.e., better utilization of the remaining CO2 emissions in the European economy, are the reasons for decarbonization in the Western Balkans to be carried out much faster than foreseen by the existing (mostly inadequate documents). It is necessary for the Western Balkans to become an integral part of the European security architecture in terms of energy supply in the common interest.

Last week, the Ministerial Council within the framework of the Energy Community Treaty made a decision to extend the validity of the Treaty for the next 10 years, from 2026 to 2036. The decision was made without considering the effects of the previous implementation of the Treaty and without appropriate amendments that would make the Treaty more effective.

Due and unfulfilled obligations to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide and particles were simply prolonged. The contradiction between the fulfilment of those obligations and decarbonization has not been resolved by appropriate amendments to the Treaty. The Ministerial Council states in paragraph 12 of the Conclusions that this pollution has an impact on the life and health of citizens, but does not bring this circumstance into connection with fundamental human rights.

In the core document of the European Commission, the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, energy supply problems are mentioned in only one paragraph. No sufficient basis is given for any investment mechanism that could significantly and quickly change the existing situation.

This factual attitude towards critical life issues, apparently, can lead to a decline in support for the EU accession process among a large part of citizens.

The process of accession to the European Union now emphasizes the basic prerequisites for accession: the rule of law, respect for human rights and economic conditions. It is time for the EU institutions to put these basic preconditions in the focus of their actions and to consistently demand the fulfilment of obligations from all international treaties and conventions.

A series of documents also indicate that the European Union should prepare better for the accession of new members. In this sense, the reform of the decision-making process is mentioned. Here it is necessary to draw attention to the fact that better protection of fundamental human rights, including the right to a healthy environment and protection of health and life, is also an important aspect of the accession process.

The reform of Article 37 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the clear and unambiguous inclusion of these rights in that Charter would be an important first step. This would enable the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) to assist the accession process and for all other EU institutions to take these rights into account in their daily activities.

The revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive is underway. Many organizations in Europe are advocating that these changes be ambitious and aligned with UN and World Health Organization standards. It is also in the best interest of the accession process.

One of the lessons learned from the accession process of the countries of the Western Balkans is that this process should also take into account the progressive development of EU legislation and not only the existing regulations and standards.

Reducing pollution from large energy facilities as well as eliminating energy poverty are aspects of the national energy policy, but solving these problems is clearly influenced by the process of accession to the EU. A responsible energy policy could be created by strict compliance with international obligations and fundamental human rights. An unequivocal commitment to these principles is what the citizens of the Western Balkans expect from the European Union.

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