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Euratom reform has part to play in EU’s energy policy plans

November 20th, 2009 by William Nuttall, Professor at Open University

The oddly plural phrase “European Communities” is not, as one might think, a reference to the 27 member states of the European Union, but to an anachronistic constitutional anomaly.

Two Treaties of Rome were signed in March 1957. Both came into force on 1 January 1958.

One was the widely known European Economic Community Treaty, since updated numerous times in Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht and elsewhere. The other established the European Atomic Energy Community, better known as Euratom.

The Merger Treaty signed in Brussels in April 1965 brought the EEC, the now defunct European Coal and Steel Community and Euratom together under a common administration across three European communities. All member states of the European Union are parties to Euratom, but formally the affiliations are separate and Euratom still retains its own legal personality.

When drafting Europe’s new Constitution in 2003, Europe’s reformers decided to leave Euratom in its 1957 state. This decision persisted as the Constitution morphed into the Lisbon Treaty. Even if eventually accepted by all member states, Lisbon will not extend to fixing the Euratom anomaly.

Euratom’s work includes the noncontroversial tasks of improving nuclear safety and maintaining safeguards against proliferation as well as roles in European nuclear fuel supply and project finance. Euratom is also responsible for much excellent research. It maintains its own research capacity in the Joint Research Centre, it underpins European fusion research and conducts research in those aspects of nuclear fission able to secure unanimous member state support. The rest of EU energy research requires no such unanimity.

Nuclear energy research merely provides options for the future, imposing no obligations to deploy nuclear power. Lisbon reinforces each member states’ sovereign right to choose its own energy mix. Euratom reform should not change that.

Historically Euratom’s unusual status has been of interest to two types of people: those like myself with an interest in science and technology policy; and antinuclear campaigners who find in Euratom’s anachronisms evidence on which to build their opposition to nuclear power. One central concern is Euratom’s democratic deficit. The Euratom Treaty requires no periodic renewal. The European Parliament has almost no role in the Euratom programme. The Parliament cannot steer the direction of the research. It can merely approve or disapprove the top level budget.

Why does the Euratom Treaty remain in this ossified state? The enthusiasm that created Euratom has mostly dissipated. In 1957 nuclear power was a modern, noncontroversial path to a prosperous future. Thereafter the Cold War intensified and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster revealed nuclear power’s dark side. Opinions began to diverge, especially between France and Germany, two of Euratom’s original godparents.

The loudest calls for reform have come from antinuclear campaign groups, but the obstacles to such reform have come neither from the nuclear research community nor the Euratom secretariat. Euratom reform requires unanimity among the member states.

Some have called for reform; others have not accepted their arguments. The time is approaching when those who wish to expand and improve EU nuclear activities should embrace Euratom reform. The challenges of climate change and energy security are simply too pressing for artificial constitutional barriers to stand in the way of sensible European decision making. Nuclear power research deserves to be considered on its merits in competition with other ideas.

One concern is that, if the Parliament were to have power over the Euratom research programme, they would immediately close it down in an attempt to reflect perceived public opinion. Such fears are probably misplaced. In the current context, surely no major energy policy steps would be taken so impulsively.

To minimise political risks, any plan to reform Euratom might be phased in slowly. Some have suggested that the process should start with a Euratom review conference. It would also seem wise to hear the opinion of the European electorate in an all union parliamentary election. The next such election is scheduled for 2014.

Meanwhile, we can take comfort from the fact that the Lisbon Treaty is no longer a complete European constitution. There will surely be numerous opportunities for further EU constitutional revision and there is no shortage of fine European cities after which to name treaties. Perhaps it is time to put Euratom on the agenda.

William J. Nuttall, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

PS. This article was originally published in Research Europe, Issue 284, 1 October 2009. Reproduced here with permission.

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2 Responses to “Euratom reform has part to play in EU’s energy policy plans”

  1. Mark Johnston Says:

    William, I don’t see any more treaty reform happening any time soon. Euratom remains a legal entity from the new Union under Lisbon, as engineering by Joscka Fischer when DE FM and driven by the goal of ossification. The protocol and declaration under the Lisbon treaty are the relevant positioning texts.

  2. Cédric Brogard Says:

    Two points might be stressed to discuss the issue of Euratom. The first is the fact that Euratom is the oldest EU (or EEC) agreement that still remains as it was at its creation in 1957. This is all the more amazing – and this is the second point- as there have been many huge evolutions as regards both the European Union and the field of energy during the past 50 years. The fact that this structure should be reformed is therefore not controversial, the idea is rather to give sense to this reform.

    The first requirement is to bind Euratom to the moving european institutional landscape, that is to say to find a way to integrate Euratom in the new structure of the EU. And this demands deep modifications, not only because of the new environmental concerns that have arisen since Euratom was created, but also because there is no more consensus upon the nuclear energy among the members of the EU. An idea could then be to attach Euratom to the European Commission, for instance as a department of it. Not only the structure of Euratom would be updated, but also and above all its aims and responsibilities.

    The European policy for energy is to spur competition on a market as open and accessible as possible. The existence of Euratom can be considered as an advantage in favor of the nuclear generation of energy (Euratom loans and research program…), and therefore against this policy, given that there is no such structure for the other fields of energy. Why not then extend the responsibilities of Euratom to the whole field of electricity, with a department for renewable generation, an other for nuclear generation, and so on? With this kind of structure, every country would be involved and able to get some benefits from the research plans, given that the scope of covered subjects would be widened. It would moreover be possible to integrate the functions of market regulation to this new actor.

    However, such an extension may be difficult to implement. Another possible and more simple modification would be to implement different degrees of participation of the EU members into Euratom depending on their global implication in the nuclear field. By global I mean not only in terms of installed plants, but taking into account the amount of nuclear-generated energy used by the country, wherever it was created. Major nuclear users such as France would thus give a greater contribution than others but have more influence on the institution. We could even imagine a system for which countries can choose to participate or not.

    Considering what we have just said, it is of upmost importance to keep in mind that the reform of Euratom does not only raises nuclear issues but, in the current context, must be considered as a possibility to create a real european agency for electricity with a real power of direction, control and recommendation for the members of the EU. Its influence ought to go further the nuclear field and include more generalist energy concerns to provide more global and integrated tools for the states, so that it can help them to rule their whole energy policy.

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