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The die is cast. The worst scenario of an ‘unjust transition’ materialized with the Russian invasion and devastation of Ukraine. A scenario that brought back to Europe the spectre of the Third World War and the reconsideration of the EU strategy for a just transition.

As the quintessence of the domination of nature by man, war is a minor ecological activity that humans might engage in. Not just for the most evident externalities of war on the natural environment. The very notion of the domination of nature by man “stems from the real domination of human by human” (Bookchin 1982, at 9) – i.e., what the essence of war is about. To accommodate humanity to war, exploitation, and political obedience “involves the undoing not only of human “first nature” as an animal but also of human “second nature” as a child who lives in dependency and protective custody under the eyes and the arms of its mother” (Ivi, at 421).

Out of the philosophical language and drama that the people of Ukraine and Russian dissidents live in, this war comes with shattering consequences for vulnerable workers and households from all around Europe. Due to the energy supply uncertainty associated with the enduring dependency on Russian oil and natural gas, many EU countries are experiencing an escalation of energy prices that exacerbates the post-pandemic inflation crisis. This is causing a series of dramatic economic effects – an erosion of the standard of living of low-income families and uncertainties about investments in new production – all of which depress the EU economy, worsen unemployment, and further disempower labour.

The social and environmental impact of the Ukraine crisis

This is a watershed moment for Europe, marking the end of a long post-war and post-1989 stability based on a rule-based international order. Still, the new geopolitical constellation also highlights the vulnerability resulting from a not-ambitious-enough energy transition. Whereas in 2011, the EU was number one in the world in renewable energy investments, from 2013 onwards, investments collapsed to remain at around half of their 2011 level, and the EU was overtaken by the US and China in particular (Galgoczi 2020). The resulting fossil fuel dependence was exacerbated by the naïve reliance on Russian oil and gas imports, fed by unfounded trust in the stabilising effect of trade relations (cf. the German geo-economic doctrine “Wandel durch Handel”). The tragedy of Ukraine is a game-changer, and the EU woke up to the moment to realize that only the speeding up of the energy transformation offers a solution. While there is no doubt about this for the mid-and long term, the short-term effects of this new energy crisis are more complex and ambiguous. 

Regarding the short-term socio-economic effects of the Ukraine crisis, these even risk jeopardizing, or at least derailing, the EU transition away from fossil fuels. Since most EU countries cannot compensate for the sudden inflation of gas prices with renewables, coal regains some competitiveness and mining activities to extract oil and natural gas in Europe. Discourses on nuclear power generation are at the centre of the political debate even in countries that have firmly opposed this energy option, including Germany. On the other hand, the geopolitical and energy crisis makes the need to accelerate the clean energy transition and investments in green infrastructures.

The European Union is, therefore, at a crossroads. Decarbonizing Europe goes hand-in-hand with emancipating the European Union from the Russian (and American) economic and geopolitical stronghold. Since 2014, the EU has progressively imposed sanctions against Russia in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea and non-compliance with the Minsk agreement. More restrictive measures were taken in March 2022 to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet the EU has refrained from taking more incisive actions so far in fear of their possibly disruptive social and economic consequences, particularly in member states most dependent on Russian fossil energy imports.

EU policy responses to the war and the energy turmoil

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on 8 March 2022, the European Commission published a new Communication called ‘REPowerEU: Joint European Action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy’ setting out further actions to ramp up the production of green energy, diversify supplies and reduce demand focused primarily on gas. This plan integrates the Communication on tackling rising energy prices launched in October 2021 and explicitly aimed at making Europe independent from Moscow by reducing EU demand for Russian gas by two thirds before the end of the year. The objective is welcome, but its feasibility raises some questions about how this rapid conversion will be financed. Replacing two-thirds of Russian gas imports needs additional investments, and these need other resources. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen clearly said that the EU could no longer rely on a supplier who explicitly threatened its existence. In this connection, the need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices was emphasized, along with the importance of diversifying the EU gas supply for the following winter.

A further Communication was released on 23 March 2022 to present the benefits and drawbacks of concrete exceptional short-term measures to temper price spikes. These measures include income support, temporary state aid, reduced taxation, a cap on electricity prices, etc. The main hurdles are fiscal costs, competition distortion, and supply disruption. Although phasing out fossil fuel subsidies has been included in the Glasgow Climate Pact, and IMF researchers pointed to their inefficiency, some sort of direct subsidies seem to be unavoidable in the current situation. These must, however, be temporary and targeted to the poor. It sends a wrong message to provide subsidies to all. We do not need to subsidize fuel for SUVs nor gas to heat swimming pools. Furthermore, EU and Member States’ interventions should also reinforce the incentives for energy efficiency and savings to reduce energy bills and the erosion of real wages. The energy efficiency first principle is more relevant than ever and should be applied across all sectors and policies, with demand response measures complementing those on the supply-side.

All of these measures are far from being complimentary. They require significant state aid to be implemented. Hence, further to the EC Guidelines on State aid for climate, environmental protection and energy adopted in January, on 23 March 2022, the Commission has launched a Temporary Crisis Framework to enable the Member States to use the flexibility foreseen under State aid rules to support the economy in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The new framework will enable the Member States to grant amounts of aid, in general, up to €2 million for the beneficiary and up to €50 million for companies in specified energy-intensive sectors affected by the current crisis or by the related sanctions and countersanctions. It will ensure that sufficient liquidity remains available to businesses and compensate companies for the additional costs incurred due to an exceptionally high gas and electricity prices. It is a welcome sign that the Member States are also invited to include sustainability requirements for granting aid for the additional energy costs linked to the high gas and electricity prices. The aid should therefore help businesses to tackle the current crisis while at the same time laying the ground for a sustainable recovery. Environmental NGOs, including E3G, rightly emphasize that the potential role of industry in reducing the EU’s dependency on natural gas is far from exploited, as energy savings up to 17%-26% could be achieved through efficiency measures in industry sectors and the electrification of industrial processes can replace half of industrial gas consumption.

IndustriAll union emphasizes that while reaching climate neutrality must remain the EU’s main objective, the current geopolitical situation and its impact on energy supplies and costs demand the mobilisation of all available means to secure affordable energy for all in the coming months.

Concluding remarks

At the roots of the European integration was the regulation of the fossil-fuels market as a prerequisite for peaceful development of the continent. Created in 1951, in the aftermath of World War II, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) brought together Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to organize the free movement of coal (and steel) and to free up access to sources of production. Along with the EEC treaty, the Euratom treaty was signed on 25 March 1957, establishing the European Atomic Energy Community with the original purpose of creating a market for nuclear power in Europe.

Ironically, the end of peace in Europe came within the long and winding transition away from fossil fuels. How the Ukraine war will end and what the outcomes of the energy transition will look like are currently unpredictable. What is clear, instead, is that these outcomes will not be neutral for labour and the European trade unions.

Fossil fuels have contributed to creating the possibility of modern democracy but also set its limits (Mitchell 2011, at 1). The conversion of the energy system to oil was aimed to “permanently weaken the coal miners, whose ability to interrupt the flow of energy had given organized labour the power to demand the improvements to collective life that had democratized Europe” (Ivi, at 29). Mitchell says that “as early as the 1940s, the architects of the Marshall Plan in Washington argued for subsidising the cost of importing oil to western Europe from the Middle East, for weakening the coal miners and defeat the left” (Ivi, at 236).

As a highly capital-intensive resource, transported around the globe and far from the sites where work takes place, oil and its synthetic by-product goods have become the energy of globalization and consumerism, weakening human ability to interfere with economic activities and maintain them within the ecological boundaries. Besides its destructive effect on climate and environment, oil has also been a geopolitical tool of imperialist power. Now, when the fossil fuel era is approaching its end, oil and gas come back again for the last revenge in the context of Russia`s aggression.

These considerations can hopefully refocus the debate on the just transition to the critical issue of power. We need to bear in mind that eradicating the root causes of labour vulnerability is necessary to imagine any post-industrial (relations) vision of organised labour that could break the imperialist and corporate domination of energy. And to help society apply the power of public governance to create a new democratic energy system that can genuinely serve human welfare and advance working conditions in a way compatible with ecological limits (Tomassetti 2022). Retracing the miners’ modus operandi in the coal age, twenty-first-century trade unions should rediscover a power source in the energy market to augment their power within the labour market. Steering the energy transition towards a decentralised, community-based energy system would be a significant step forward. Greater independence from and influence on the energy market could give organised labour and communities the capability to contrast the root causes of energy poverty, allowing them to steer the sustainable development of the post-industrial society while maintaining the market space embedded within the broader socio-ecological one.

The EU needs to strike a delicate balance in this critical moment: turning away from Russian fossil fuel imports as fast as possible and cushioning the short-term price effects in a targeted and temporary manner while not letting a more ambitious energy transformation get derailed.