The UK imports about six per cent of its electricity via submarine cables connecting it to mainland Europe. These links help Britain deal with the ebb and flow of renewable energy generation, and give the country a “safety net” in case something goes wrong. Europe’s electricity grid shows how interconnected nation states are today, and energy offers great insight into wider issues raised by the EU referendum.
The first is that national sovereignty – if it means that a nation-state is able to represent its interests – is not necessarily best achieved at a purely national level. The UK has had a significant influence on EU energy policy over the years, on everything from liberalizing EU energy markets to the more recent push to shift from fossil fuels to renewables. On these and other issues, the UK has led the way and other Member States have followed suit. Britain’s sovereignty over energy and climate change policy has been increased, not diminished, by its EU membership.
Sovereignty, of course, does not necessarily imply democracy. Yet people sometimes call the EU ‘undemocratic’ without having any idea how it works. Remember that all European legislation is discussed and approved, unanimously or by majority vote, by elected representatives of each Member State. The European Parliament, elected by proportional representation, is more democratically representative than the UK Parliament, in which a party with only 37 percent of the vote has an absolute majority of seats.
This means that guidelines on renewable energy or energy efficiency are agreed upon by UK politicians in consultation with their counterparts from all other member states. They are not “imposed” by “Brussels”, as such legislation is so often described. At the same time, checks and balances ensure that the EC does not exceed itself, and national governments are allowed to decide how most European legislation is actually implemented in their country. Therefore, it is up to the UK how it chooses to keep the lights on while reducing its carbon emissions – not the EU.
With Member States broadly moving in the same direction on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, the markets for new technologies are larger. The EU uses these economies of scale to make products cheaper, which benefits both European consumers and exporters. That is the point of the internal market.
This effect is especially important in the energy sector. Energy, and especially electricity, flows through networks that must be regulated and balanced by complex technical and institutional arrangements. For example, if a power station suddenly fails, or if a windless, overcast day prevents wind and solar generation, electricity can still be connected from a neighboring country. Most people will not even notice the disturbance.
Under the EU Energy Union proposals, the UK’s interconnection with other European countries is being significantly strengthened, with new cables to France, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Iceland either agreed or under discussion. Such new interconnectors would of course be possible if the UK were outside the EU and its energy union, but they would be of much lower priority for the EU and would almost certainly be significantly more expensive.
The conclusions from the available evidence are clear. Within the EU, the UK will have significant influence on how the continent cuts its carbon emissions and adopts radically new renewable technology. Britain’s energy system will be well integrated with that of the mainland, benefiting from economies of scale and common standards, while ensuring a secure and stable electricity supply.
Outside the EU, the UK will either live in energy isolation that is both more expensive and less secure than being part of the internal energy market, or it will be a second-class member of that market, obliged to accept the rules of EU members, but do not affect how they are agreed upon.
The paradox is that the UK will be more sovereign within the EU, in the sense that it will have more control over its energy future, and will be part of a wider democracy, with an energy system that is more secure and provides energy at a lower cost, than if the UK tried to control energy developments itself. Such paradoxes in today’s globally interconnected world are not uncommon.
This story was originally published on The Conversation.