Climate and energy package

Speech by minister Timmermans at the EU policy seminar in Clingendael.

I am really grateful to all of you for being here. I believe climate change is probably the biggest challenge that the EU faces. To curb the warming of the planet, for the sake of the next generation; to curb the negative influence on our climate; to make sure that how we operate is sustainable; to make sure that our energy consumption goes down and that we diversify our energy resources. For many reasons, but most importantly, for the survival of human beings and the survival of the planet. We really need to undertake some action in this area.

There is a lack of self-confidence in the EU as to our global impact. We tend to underestimate our own influence, and conversely to overestimate the position and influence of others. If we act jointly, however, we are the global leaders.

To those of you who might have doubts about this, consider issues such as standards of consumer protection, product safety norms and countless other norms in industry. Even the Financial Times and the Economist now agree that the norms set by the EU are being followed by the rest of the world.

The interesting parallel between these two discussions – about the planet and about the economy and norms – is that, in the past, people protested against the high level of protection in Europe. It was said to put us at a competitive disadvantage compared to other economic areas in the world.

This proved to be a fallacy. Without enlargement of the EU, it might have been a different story. But since the enlargement of the EU, we are 500 million people strong. We have 500 million consumers with relatively more money to spend than anywhere else. That is the economy that sets the pace for the rest of the world. That is the economy where the highest standards are applied – standards that are now followed by other economic entities simply because this is where they want to be able to sell their products. Once they can sell their products in the economy with the highest level of protection and quality standards, they can be all but certain of being allowed to sell their products on other markets too.

I think this logic also applies to the climate. I believe that if we set the trend, if we are bold enough to take the first steps and show the rest of the world the direction that we want to go in, then the rest will follow. There is no doubt in my mind, no doubt whatsoever, that whoever wins the next presidential elections in the United States – whether he or she represents the Republicans or the Democratic party – the new President will give top priority to climate change. I heard this message in Washington, I heard it from the US governors whom I met in Lisbon, when we signed the agreement on the trading system. It’s been said very clearly.

If we can show some leadership in that area, the US is probably going to follow our lead to a large degree. And I think that this could boost the self-confidence of Europeans, make us believe in the possibilities of European action. For me, this is almost a political sine qua non for necessary public support for EU action.

People are generally rather cynical about politics and government. But research in the Netherlands and other EU member states has shown that, if there is one area in which people do understand there is a need for government action and accept that their behaviour will have to change, it is global warming. People accept that their behaviour in terms of energy consumption and other private actions will have to change, and that we have to take measures, unpopular as they may be. People will accept and do understand that political action is necessary, and that is something the EU should not forget.

I would like to turn now to the Commission’s proposals. First of all, I admire the way the Commission consulted with the member states. It did’nt devise these proposals in an ivory tower and hand them down to the member states. It consulted extensively with all the member states in preparing its package. It has not always been so with Commission proposals. I think this has set a new standard for cooperation between member states and the Commission.

Secondly, I fully understand that in quite a number of member states the package seems undesirable and difficult. It will necessitate far-reaching changes in economic structures and energy structures. This is painful, I know. It applies to my country as well. Our government programme in this area is extremely ambitious, but we know that it is going to be very painful to translate it into concrete measures.

People won’t like it when the cost of driving a car goes up. The net price will not change as they will be paying more for using the car and less for owning the car. But initially, this will lose us some people’s support because all they will be able to see is that they will have to pay more to drive their cars.

I could name several measures that are very painful for people, but I feel we need to do this and I think we need to accept that the package the Commission has presented is a balanced package. I don’t think that any member state is singled out, or is more heavily burdened than other member states. I even think that the Commission has been extremely lenient towards certain member states. I can understand that because some member states do have serious structural problems that stand in the way of attaining the EU goals. I accept that the Commission tried to take this into account. I do not accept people saying that the Commission’s proposal is a bit unbalanced or treats individual member states unfairly. That would not do justice to the Commission’s efforts.

The problems we are facing, if I may briefly touch on that point, mostly have to do with the fact that we have such a high population density. This means that we have relatively few options that we can develop on a very large scale. Wind energy of course has top priority, but it’s difficult to find space to place t he windmills. This immediately causes problems with other developments. If we look at offshore wind parks, we immediately run into a new set of problems. The cost of building and maintaining offshore wind parks is enormous, as we have seen in Denmark and elsewhere.

Biofuels, then: how much space does the Netherlands have for growing biofuels? It’s not easy to study the possibilities of other renewable energy sources. It’s difficult to work out what we should do with our limited land area. While we are struggling to implement our climate policy, we are committed to doing so. We believe, from our national perspective, that every option should be explored. To up the ante, for the EU too. We believe we have to try to reach 30% if we possibly can, because it’s our national ambition for alternative energy, too.

Let me finish on my pivotal point. That is that we need to stick together on this. Whatever we believe in terms of national issues being treated differently, if a number of member states say OK we’re not going to do this, then the whole thing falls apart. And we would miss a tremendous opportunity to show European leadership that would be followed by the rest of the world.

Thank you very much.