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Insight | Brexit and the energy question

interconnector tunnel

Questions about whether the UK should keep its membership of European nuclear body Euratom dominated national headlines last week.

From fusion research to the future of Hinkley Point C, security of supply for nuclear material has become a serious concern. But while the government equivocated over our Euratom membership, the House of Lords EU energy and environment sub-committee quietly launched an inquiry into how Brexit could affect energy security in the UK.

Starting in the autumn, the inquiry will raise questions on our membership of the Internal Energy Market (IEM), EU-UK energy interconnection and EU funding for energy infrastructure.

But how deeply are we connected the Europe in the first place? And if our domestic energy production from renewables is increasing, how important is European trade for our energy supply?

ETH Zurich Center for Security Studies senior researcher Severin Fischer believes that Brexit will be a far bigger headache for Britain.

“The problem around energy and Brexit is bigger for the UK than it is for Europe,” he says.

“The UK is, compared with the overall European market, a small one, and that means the smaller market rather needs the flexibility of the larger market than the other way around.”

Fischer believes that while the UK is less dependent on the EU for gas trade, given its historic high levels of production and global trade partners in the liquid natural gas (LNG) market, we rely far more on the EU for electricity imports.

“If you look at the patterns of energy trade, especially electricity trade, in the last couple of years then you see that the UK is kind of dependent or at least imports a lot of electricity from mainland Europe, especially in winter.”

Chatham House Europe programme researcher Georgina Wright agrees with this assessment, explaining that a portion of Britain’s electricity supply both comes from and travels through Europe.

“The key about electricity is, as the UK seeks to decarbonise further, and if the building of interconnectors goes ahead, it will be impossible to unplug the UK from the EU Internal Energy Market,” she says.

Britain currently has 3.5GW of interconnector capacity across three EU-UK interconnectors: a 2GW connection to France; a 1GW connection to the Netherlands and a 500MW connection to the Republic of Ireland. But there are seven more interconnectors set to be built by 2022, linking the UK and Europe more closely.

The IEM allows free trade of gas and electricity across the EU. Since 1996 it has undergone an overhaul to become more liberalised – for example, new gas and electricity suppliers can now enter EU markets and industrial consumers can choose their own supplier.

“We’ve traditionally been a very strong advocate within the European Council and a driver for market liberalisation, in the single market but also in the Internal Energy Market,” says Wright, adding that many in the EU feel the UK’s voice will be sorely missed.

Fischer agrees that the UK has been an important player in reforming the IEM, but questions how much influence this will have on Brexit negotiations.

“Brexit debates are not decided on the energy question…there are other topics that are much more salient to the debates: migration; the institutional questions; so, they will decide also what’s happening in energy,” he says.

“So energy is the taker of the developments rather than the driver of things.”

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