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EU risks losing geopolitical energy battle in Western Balkans

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The EU has invested considerable resources in promoting renewable energy in the Western Balkans, but countries in the region continue to rely on coal to meet their energy needs. Based on a new investigation, Nikolaos Tzifakis And Tena Prelect explain that while people in the Western Balkans strongly support the use of renewable energy, they also tend to support foreign investments that delay the transition to green energy.

As EU member states move forward with the green energy transition, the Western Balkans continue to rely heavily on outdated coal-fired power plants, leading to deadly emissions that far exceed permitted limits. The consequences are disastrous, with an increase in premature deaths and serious health problems hitting the region.

To gauge public opinion on energy policies in the region, the Political Advisory Group on the Balkans in Europe (BiEPAG) conducted a regional survey in the six Western Balkan countries in March-April 2023. The survey found that there is broad support for the green transition in the region.

An overwhelming 71% of respondents believe their country should derive its energy primarily from renewable sources by 2050 (see Figure 1). Equally encouraging, a similar proportion of participants (67%) supported increasing investment in domestic renewable energy sources in response to the energy crisis.

Figure 1: Sources of energy supply for Western Balkan countries by 2050

Chart showing that most people in the Western Balkans think their country should produce energy from renewable sources.

Note: For more information, see the search for support published by the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG).

However, a worrying trend is emerging regarding public perception of external actors and their influence on the region’s energy transition. These perceptions appear to have been colored by preconceptions and broader beliefs about these countries.

For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, only 8% of respondents cited China as a negative influence, despite Beijing’s involvement in the country’s coal industry (Figure 2). In Serbia, a staggering 56% of respondents favor increased dependence on Russia for energy, even though Gazprom’s monopoly on the gas market has hampered diversification of supply (Figure 3). And in Kosovo, where an investment by a Turkish consortium in the electricity system sparked controversy, only 3% of respondents identified Turkey as a negative influence (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Negative influence on a country’s energy choices

Chart showing Western Balkan residents' opinions on the impact of other states on their energy sectors.  Serbia has the most negative opinions towards the EU.

Note: For more information, see the search for support published by the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG).

These results reveal a significant disconnect between the public’s overwhelming support for renewable energy and its inability to recognize the harmful influence of external actors invested in maintaining the status quo. Thanks to their control over the media, those in power construct a positive image of certain third-party powers which helps to obscure their main interests and, by extension, to protect agreements harmful to the environment from public scrutiny.

It is crucial to emphasize that residents of the Western Balkans mainly get their news from local media, with most citing television as their main source of information. As a result, local elites and their pro-regime media play a central role in shaping public perceptions of third-party powers.

They control the narrative and can limit the dissemination of information that could challenge the existing status quo. Generally speaking, local elites do not remain passive spectators to the region’s serious energy prospects. They retain the power to make decisions on behalf of their country and bear primary responsibility for the energy choices of the Western Balkans.

At the same time, the EU’s claim that it plays a positive role in the energy sector is not necessarily accepted. A good example is Serbia. Although the EU is the largest donor of financial aid linked to the energy sector (165 million euros in immediate aid in 2023, in addition to more than a billion euros for the sector since 2000 ), only 28% of Serbian respondents said their country should rely more on the Union for security of supply (graph 3). Additionally, 29% believe the EU has a negative influence on Serbia’s energy choices, compared to only 13% having a negative opinion of Russia. Serbs across the region further share pro-Russian views.

Figure 3: Dependence on energy supply

Chart showing who people in the Western Balkans think their country should rely on for energy.  Albania has the highest score for the EU, while Serbia has the highest score for Russia.

Note: For more information, see the search for support published by the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG).

The survey found that 49% and 44% of respondents in Serbia and North Macedonia respectively felt the EU was demanding too much from their countries in terms of energy reforms (compared to 32% and 38% who felt it had adequate requirements or requested energy reforms). too small). In Kosovo, public opinions on this issue were almost evenly divided.

The survey results demonstrate that EU policies are not fully understood or supported across the region. In other words, the EU has failed to craft its policy in the region in such a way that its recommendations are widely endorsed. The EU’s practice of simply transposing its own energy policy priorities into the Western Balkans does not appear to address key policy concerns on the ground, related to energy affordability and air pollution.

Given the high level of economic insecurity and energy poverty in the region, many respondents believe that the EU is too demanding while providing insufficient aid. It also remains an open question whether the survey responses reflect public frustration with the conditions of EU membership. If so, public support for EU-mandated energy reforms could be negatively affected by the deadlock in the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans.

If the Western Balkans are to catch up with the rest of Europe in terms of green energy transition, the public must have accurate and comprehensive information on energy policies and foreign investments. Local elites must also be held accountable. A transparent decision-making process is needed to help the region achieve a sustainable and environmentally friendly future. Otherwise, the public’s green aspirations risk being undermined by hidden agendas, short-term interests and environmentally destructive geopolitical partnerships.

For more information, see the search for support published by the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG)

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Bilanol/Shutterstock.com

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