Building the EU’s Energy Policy Agenda: Insights Gained

© Springer-Verlag London 2015
Jale Tosun, Sophie Biesenbender and Kai Schulze (eds.)Energy Policy Making in the EULecture Notes in Energy2810.1007/978-1-4471-6645-0_13

13. Building the EU’s Energy Policy Agenda: Insights Gained

Jale Tosun , Sophie Biesenbender  and Kai Schulze 

Institute of Political Science, Heidelberg University, Bergheimer Strasse 58, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany

Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance, Schützenstraße 6a, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Potsdam, August-Bebel-Str. 89, 14482 Potsdam, Germany



Jale Tosun (Corresponding author)


Sophie Biesenbender


Kai Schulze


This chapter summarises the main findings of this volume. Based on the individual contributions, we first illustrate the characteristics and dynamics of EU energy policy. Next, we engage in a structured overview of the theoretical and empirical insights provided into agenda building throughout this book. Finally, we point to promising avenues and directions for future research and present some concluding remarks.

13.1 Introduction: Patterns of EU Energy Policy

Despite being the first area of cooperation among European states, it took a long time for EU energy policy to develop into a discrete policy field (see Tosun et al. in Chap. 1). In particular in the last few years, energy issues have been increasingly placed on the EU’s political agenda (see Alexandrova and Timmermans in Chap. 3), which at most times has indeed resulted in the adoption of new energy policies (see Biesenbender in Chap. 2). Today, EU energy policy consists of measures relating to the economic, environmental, security and social aspects of energy. Furthermore, the EU is eager about ‘exporting’ its energy policies to non-member states, in particular via the Energy Community (see Schulze in Chap. 4).

The economic dimension of energy policy is examined in detail by Nicole Herweg (Chap. 5), Andrea Ciambra and Israel Solorio (Chap. 8) and Elina Brutschin (Chap. 10). All three contributions shed light on how various facets of energy market liberalisation ended up on the EU’s political agenda. The environmental dimension of EU energy policy is addressed by the contributions of David Jacobs (Chap. 6) and Robert H. Cox and Mariam Dekanozishvili (Chap. 9), which deal with the promotion of renewable energy. These two chapters complement each other very well since one concentrates on the role of the Commission (Chap. 6) and the other draws attention to the importance of influential member states such as in the present case Germany (Chap. 9). Chapter 11 by Gerhard Fuchs also belongs to this group of studies showing how the prioritisation of climate change induced the EU to turn its attention to a technology that is associated with uncertain environmental and safety risks. Elina Brutschin (Chap. 10) and Jale Tosun (Chap. 12) contribute to the understanding of the securityrelated aspects of EU energy policy. In the case of Tosun’s chapter, security has a double meaning: on the one hand it refers to considerations about security of supply and on the other to public security and the protection of the environment.

Finally, the contribution by Stefan Bouzarovski and Saska Petrova (Chap. 7) helps to grasp the social dimension of EU energy policy, which has received only scant scientific attention so far. In this context, the authors focus on the issue of energy poverty, which the few existing studies show to be a real-existing phenomenon in Europe (see, e.g. Thomson and Snell 2013; Bouzarovski 2014; Schuessler 2014). While this topic is certainly an emerging one, Chap. 7 compellingly shows that there is an intensified political debate about the social foundations and implications of energy policy. It is possible that these considerations will produce corresponding legislation in the future.

All in all, with regard to the development of EU energy policy, this edited volume has generated three key insights. First, in the last few years, energy issues did benefit from elevated levels of political attention, thus leading to an increased production of corresponding rules. By illustrating different paths and patterns of agenda shaping, the case studies of this volume have furthered our understanding of agenda shaping as the bottleneck for subsequent policy making in the EU. Second, EU energy policy has become more diverse and encompassing, now also including considerations about the affordability of energy. Third, even while representing a policy field that was just formalised by the Lisbon Treaty, EU energy policy has also been transferred to non-EU states through the Energy Community.

The remainder of this chapter addresses the research questions posed in Chap. 1: When are energy issues likely to be placed on the EU’s political agenda? Which actors are influential in agenda shaping and what are their strategies? When does agenda shaping lead to legislative action? The findings of the individual chapters contribute to answering these questions. In a final section, the chapter presents some ideas we deem worth to be taken into account by future studies.

13.2 The Entering of Energy Issues on the EU’s Political Agenda

Most contributions to this book address the more specific phenomenon of agenda-setting, that is, the process of putting predominantly new topics onto the political agenda (Peters 1994). Agenda-setting is, for instance, very well illustrated by Jacobs and Fuchs as well as Cox and Dekanozishvili. Furthermore, the chapters by Biesenbender, Schulze and Alexandrova and Timmermans display a primary interest in the agenda-setting processes. This finding concurs with the prevalent perspective adopted by the research literature. Furthermore, it is plausible that among the three types of agenda shaping defined by Tallberg (2003), agenda-setting receives the highest scholarly attention. First, the process of placing an issue on the agenda is analytically intriguing because it provides insights into the power resources of individual actor groups. The other reason is more pragmatic and concerns the possibility to empirically observe agenda-shaping efforts in the real world, which gives the purposeful and visible agenda-setting attempts an advantage over the other, more subtle or less visible forms of agenda shaping. Nevertheless, some contributions in this volume also captured agenda structuring and agenda exclusion.

Attempts of agenda exclusion are illustrated by the contributions of Ciambra and Solorio, Bouzarovski and Petrova as well as Tosun. One of the most interesting insights is provided by Ciambra and Solorio as they assign the United Kingdom the power to practice agenda exclusion at the European level. According to the analysis, the United Kingdom fought to keep the issue of energy-market development off the agenda during the 1970s since it did not correspond to its national preferences. The other two case studies (see Chaps. 7 and 12), by contrast, highlight the Commission’s power to exclude issues from the decision agenda and the strategy the Commission applies to seek agenda exclusion.

Processes that correspond to agenda structuring are described in the contributions by Herweg and Brutschin. In both cases, issues that were already around for a while became re-emphasised and associated with different images. What these two contributions manage to show is that the redefinition of issue images is essential for facilitating agenda structuring. This became particularly clear in the chapter by Brutschin, which associates the making of the third gas directive with a successful redefinition of the issue from an emphasis on competition to a question of foreign policy in the wake of the EU’s eastern enlargement. In addition to this, Herweg’s analysis shows how the concept of agenda structuring can be seminally studied from the perspective offered by Kingdon’s (1984) multiple streams approach.

Altogether, we can state that all three forms of agenda shaping advanced by Tallberg (2003)—agenda-setting, structuring and exclusion—could be observed in the present collection of studies. This suggests that Tallberg’s approach is indeed based on real-life patterns of agenda shaping. By adopting this differentiation, the causal processes underlying agenda shaping could be even better understood by empirical research.

When are energy issues likely to be placed on the political agenda of the European Union? In the introductory chapter, we stated that the literature assigns external events an important role for the definition of the EU energy policy agenda. A number of case studies in this volume illustrated the consequences that external events have had for agenda shaping. What is remarkable about these events in the context of EU energy policy is the fact that in most cases they concern issues of energy security related to a dependence on imports of energy or fossil fuels from third states (see chapters by Brutschin, Cox and Dekanozishvili as well as Tosun) or to the diversification of the energy mix and energy efficiency (see chapter by Jacobs). This observation is perfectly in line with the argument put forward by Buchan (2010), who posits that security-related issues most likely end up on the political agenda because of certain events.

Some case studies also pointed out that the EU’s energy policy agenda is influenced by broader policy goals, especially by the EU’s ambitions to combat climate change. This goal was able to bring the issues of renewable energy promotion (see Chaps. 6 and 9) and carbon capture and storage (see Chap. 11) on the EU energy policy agenda. This finding corresponds well with the logic of neofunctionalist theories, which emphasise the idea of a progressive EU integration process as a result of endogenous interdependencies and spillovers (Schimmelfennig 2014, p. 327). Put differently, given the very nature of energy policy, agenda shaping is to a notable extent the result of decisions taken in adjacent policy fields. From this, one could conclude that the development of the energy agenda is based on a functional logic, that is, as a response to events or broader policy goals. Yet, the contributions by Herweg and Bouzarovski and Petrova show that this is not quite the case. In fact, Herweg discusses how the Commission managed to bring onto the agenda a ‘problem’ that was completely decoupled from any concrete event. In a similar vein, the issue of energy poverty almost incidentally ended up on the EU’s political agenda in the context of the Third Energy Package.

All in all, we could indeed observe that the EU’s political agenda regarding energy issues displays “a number of regularities and recurring dynamics” (Princen 2012, p. 207). These refer to the observation that agenda-setting—as a special type of agenda shaping—often occurs in response to external events, even though the concrete process can evolve in different ways and does not ensure that concrete action will follow (see Chaps. 2 and 3). And in such cases, it is often the European Council that sets the agenda. Moreover, the EU’s energy policy agenda was found to be affected by functional considerations about a wide range of energy-related challenges. Finally, the energy policy agenda is rather dynamic because it is generally affected by decisions taken in other policy areas. Since energy policy reaches into many adjacent policy areas, agenda-setting via spillovers occurs quite regularly (see Tosun and Solorio 2011). Nonetheless, there is also something unintentional about how the EU’s energy policy agenda is defined, which might best be explained by Kingdon’s (1984) multiple streams approach.

13.3 The Actors and Their Strategies

In the EU polity, the Commission has the exclusive right of legislative initiative, which turns it into the most important formal agenda shaper as highlighted in the introductory chapter. The Commission however does not act in a vacuum and the formal right of initiative is no guarantee for a successful policy proposal (Tallberg 2006). In this regard, many studies stress the importance of the interaction between the Commission and the European Council (see, e.g. Alexandrova et al. 2012; Bocquillon and Dobbels 2014). The case studies presented in this book contribute to this research perspective in two ways. First, they provide insights into the framing strategies of the Commission. Second, the contributions directly address the relationship between the Commission and a range of other EU institutions and the government of the member states (for the latter, see, e.g. Alexandrova and Timmermans 2013).

13.3.1 Framing Strategies of the Commission

Overall, the agenda-shaping powers of the Commission are fundamentally linked to its political and legal mandate as well as its personnel resources available. The Single European Act has equipped the Commission with the necessary mandate to place energy policy on the EU’s political agenda. At the same time, the administrative capacities of the Commission have considerably expanded over the last 25 years enabling the Commission to exert its agenda-shaping powers both autonomously and in response to the European Council and other actors that are entitled to approach the Commission to initiate legislation (see, e.g. Trondal 2012).

Even though the Commission makes constant use of its formal monopoly to put different energy topics on the European agenda, the strategies and their success vary over issues. The case studies show that the Commission’s agenda-shaping success is largely related to the framing strategies employed and the ability to anticipate the interests of other EU institutions (such as the Council and the European Parliament) and the member states.

As Herweg in Chap. 5 observes, the liberalisation of the European gas market (i.e. the negotiations over the first gas directive) was proactively approached by the Commission and convincingly framed as an internal market or competition issue that should be addressed at the EU-level. One particularity of the Commission’s agenda was that it anticipated the member states’ national regulatory interests in the topic. The Commission was able to keep the issue on the EU energy agenda despite diverging political interests in the different institutions and member states. It chose a similar (that is, inclusive) approach when shaping the agenda and negotiating the third gas directive (see Chap. 10 by Brutschin). Following the enlargement of the EU, the Commission managed to take changed national interests and constellations into account. The reframing of the topic as both an internal market and a foreign policy issue in the negotiations enabled the Commission to successfully keep it on the European agenda across institutions. This finding stresses again how important the definition or re-definition of issues is to structure the already existing political agenda.

With regard to the regulation of renewable electricity, the framing of the topic as a competition issue was less straightforward and more reserved (see Chap. 6 by Jacobs). The variety of different national interests and approaches made it difficult for the Commission to advance its preferred policy solution or to reach consensus in the complex debate on financing mechanisms for renewable electricity with the member states. As a result, the Commission reduced both its agenda-setting and decision-making ambitions for this policy issue under the internal market frame. Instead of advancing a comprehensive European policy on renewable electricity, it started to focus on individual regulations that freed it from the need to reach consensus in the complex co-decision process (i.e. involving the Council and the European Parliament).

In sum, the European Commission has deliberately used different framing strategies and adjusted its regulatory ambitions to shape the European agenda with respect to the regulation of the European gas market and renewable electricity. In particular, the Chap. 2 by Biesenbender and the three case studies (Chaps. 5, 6 and 10) suggest that the Commission has so far predominantly relied on the internal market frame when making use of its formal monopoly to place and keep different topics on the EU’s energy policy agenda. This perspective is also reflected in the design and functioning of the EU’s external energy policy (see Chap. 4 by Schulze). What can be inferred from this finding is that the Commission tends to choose its strategies in accordance with its respective preferences. Also, the agenda-shaping powers of the Commission are truly encompassing, including agenda-setting, structuring and exclusion.

Even though the European Council has become more active in defining the EU’s energy policy agenda, the actor that must and usually does act in a more strategic way is the Commission. The main instrument it can rely on is the definition and redefinition of issues by means of framing, which is perfectly in line with the more general theories of agenda shaping (see Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Baumgartner et al. 2006; Princen 2011, 2012; Engeli et al. 2012; Green-Pedersen and Walgrave 2014).

The picture is different in regard to the issues of energy poverty, carbon capture and storage or hydraulic fracturing that entered the European agenda under different frames. These cases show that the Commission has not always made use of its formal agenda-setting monopoly especially when the link with the internal market was weak. In some cases, the European Parliament has taken the lead in the subsequent shaping of the EU energy agenda (see Chaps. 7 and 12 by Bouzarovski and Petrova as well as Tosun). In other situations, attention for an issue has trickled away (see Chap. 11 by Fuchs). As the chapter by Bouzarovski and Petrova illustrates, the Commission has not (yet) tried to place the issue of energy poverty on the EU agenda by explicitly framing the topic as a European one. In the presence of growing problem perception however, the resulting vacuum has been filled by other policy actors (in this case the European Economic and Social Committee) that took the lead in bringing the issue onto the European agenda, which has since then been advanced further by the European Parliament.

The case of carbon capture and storage (see chapter by Fuchs) illustrates a similar passive approach of the Commission towards the policy. Even though the Commission was asked by the European Council to follow-up on the agenda by developing a legal framework, the Commission did not engage in serious and sustained agenda-shaping activities. Different from the case of energy poverty, the agenda-setting vacuum has not been filled so far at the European level.

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