Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme

Shane Tomlinson

Senior Associate, E3G; Former Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House

In the field of energy and climate change policy, remaining in the EU offers the best balance of policy options for Britain’s national interests.

A line of electricity pylons stretches beyond fields of rapeseed near Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire, on 27 April 2015.Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images.A line of electricity pylons stretches beyond fields of rapeseed near Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire, on 27 April 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Over the last 30 years the EU has played a central role in addressing the competitiveness, security and climate dimensions of energy policy among its member states. The UK has been critical in driving forward integration of the European energy market, and has been a strong advocate of liberalized energy markets and some climate change mitigation policies.
  • If, at the June 2016 referendum, the UK does vote to leave the EU, energy and climate policy will be part of the overall package of issues to be negotiated, as it is unlikely that each sector will be treated separately. The model of relations for energy and climate may well be determined by political and public sentiment on higher-profile issues such as freedom of movement, rather than by what is best for the UK in these policy areas.
  • The UK is increasingly reliant on imports, including from and through continental Europe, and its energy market is deeply integrated with that of its European neighbours. As a growing share of the UK’s electricity is exchanged with EU partners, it would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks. A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.
  • This paper reviews the risks and trade-offs associated with five possible options for a post-exit relationship. Of these, the Norway or the Energy Community models would be the least disruptive, enabling continuity in energy market access, regulatory frameworks and investment; however, both would come at the cost of accepting the vast majority of legislation while relinquishing any say in its creation. The UK would thus have less, rather than more, sovereignty over energy policy.
  • The Switzerland, the Canada and the WTO models offer the possibility of greater sovereignty in a number of areas, such as buildings and infrastructure standards as well as state aid. None the less, each would entail higher risks, with greater uncertainty over market access, investment and electricity prices. These models would reduce or even eliminate the UK’s contribution to the EU budget, but would also limit or cut off access to EU funding mechanisms.
  • All five Brexit models would undermine the UK’s influence in international energy and climate diplomacy. The UK would no longer play any direct role in shaping the climate and energy policies of its EU neighbours, at a time when the EU’s proposed Energy Union initiatives offer the prospect of a more integrated and effective European energy sector. A decision to leave the EU would make it easier for a future UK government to change direction on climate policy, since only a change in domestic legislation would be required.
  • ‘Brexit’ could affect the balance of energy policy among the remaining member states. In its absence, the centre of gravity for EU energy policy might shift away from market mechanisms and result in weaker collective action on greenhouse gas reduction targets.
  • In the field of energy and climate change policy, remaining in the EU offers the best balance of policy options for Britain’s national interests: the UK would continue to benefit from the integrated energy market, while maintaining influence over its direction and minimizing uncertainty for crucial investment.