Blog post

Does the European Union need an energy crisis fund?

An EU energy fund is justified, but for different reasons than commonly assumed, with implications for the fund’s design.

Publishing date
11 October 2022

A German plan for a €200 billion national energy emergency fund, proposed at the end of September, set alarm bells ringing across the European Union. The fear is that EU countries with more fiscal space, such as Germany, will be able to outspend others when dealing with the crisis. This could fragment the EU single market, “setting up a race for subsidies, and calling into question the principles of solidarity and unity that underpin our European project,” according to a widely-syndicated article by two top EU officials, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton and economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. Preferable, the commissioners argued, would be a “mutualised tool at the European level” that “protects all European companies and citizens”, similarly to the support instruments created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the commissioners’ concerns are valid (though they also reflect a misunderstanding of the German fund, which attempts to pre-fund energy-crisis related expenditures – most of which are not gas price subsidies – over a two year period). However, their arguments are unlikely to convince either Germany or other sceptics of EU fiscal mutualisation.

The obvious objection to mutualisation is that the purpose of building fiscal buffers – that is, reducing debt in good times – is to have more room for manoeuvre in bad times. Some (ourselves included) would prefer to create such buffers at the EU level, in the form of a much larger EU budget with a borrowing capacity. But so long as this does not exist, EU countries must have incentives to build such buffers at the national level. Redistributing fiscal resources to ensure equal treatment of households and firms in the EU after a bad shock would undermine such incentives.

This is the logic underlying the European Treaty’s no-bailout clause. It does not mean that there cannot be pan-EU solidarity with the hardest hit, but it does mean that member countries will worry mostly about their own citizens.

A different crisis

The less-obvious objection to a common energy emergency fund has to do with the nature of this crisis and, particularly, of the crisis response. In the pandemic, the responses of EU countries, such as higher spending in support of businesses and households (including to enable people to stay at home), also helped other EU countries by reducing deaths and stimulating demand for imports. But since higher spending is financed locally, governments, especially those with little fiscal space, would not normally take these ‘externalities’ into account when formulating their spending plans. As a result, a highly-integrated economy such as the EU could have seen too little crisis spending in the pandemic. It thus made sense for the EU level to subsidise such spending, which was done in the form of grants or cheaper lending from the common Next Generation EU and SURE funds.

This crisis is different. A demand externality still exists, but at a time of high inflation, this is not necessarily a good thing (higher demand in country A could lead to even higher inflation in country B). More importantly, the instinctive national reaction to the crisis – subsidising gas and other energy consumption, as is happening in many EU countries – imparts a negative externality on other EU countries: higher energy demand in one country pushes up the gas and electricity prices in the entire bloc. In extremis, this could require more rationing.

For this reason, the cooperative, unified EU response (which we, the European Commission, the Council of the EU and Council President Charles Michel have all called for) should not focus mainly on EU-level fiscal support. For this crisis, ‘solidarity’ does not necessarily mean more spending. Rather, it means less energy consumption. The principal measure of solidarity should not be whether an EU country is willing to support other countries financially, but whether it designs its own support plan with incentives to reduce energy consumption, whether it acts to unlock all energy supply options, and whether it will share scarce energy with neighbouring countries in case of an emergency. Therefore the German ‘gas price brake’ and ‘electricity price brake’ – which are to be financed by the €200 billion plan – could become instruments of solidarity if they reduce German energy demand. This could be the case if they subsidise energy prices only up to a threshold (such as 70%-80% of past consumption), while allowing the prices for additional consumption units to be determined by the market, as proposed by the expert commission tasked with designing the gas price brake (see here for a useful Twitter thread in English).

Arguments for an EU energy fund

An EU-level support fund could nevertheless be a good idea, even critically important, for three reasons.

First, there is a valid concern that if some countries are more generous than others in the support they give energy-intensive firms that compete internationally, it might not only distort the level playing field during the crisis but could improve the competitive position of these firms even post-crisis, to the detriment of EU competitors. While a stronger fiscal position gives a country every right to be more generous to its citizens than a fiscally weaker country, it does not give it the right to inflict damage on other countries through its ability to provide state aid. State-aid rules can limit such damage, but this is not enough to maintain a (roughly) level playing field unless a minimum level of support is provided everywhere.

Second, an EU-level fiscal instrument would greatly improve the chances that support for firms is provided in a way that encourages energy savings and is consistent with the green transition. Even in countries with the best governance, distributing subsidies to firms is subject to lobbying, connections and state capture. Providing these funds at EU level will not stop these problems, but can reduce them significantly.

Third, beyond promoting incentives-friendly firm support, the fund could also be used to create incentives for EU countries to implement those policies that are essential to a cooperative and effective response to the energy crisis. Countries would lose access to the fund if, for example, they implement policies inconsistent with meeting their energy-demand reduction commitments, or close their borders to energy trade. Additional support from the fund could go to countries that make special efforts to increase supply, for example, by increasing local gas production, authorising additional pipelines or extending the life of nuclear plants.

How to design it

A fund that meets these objectives should not simply be a replica of past fiscal stabilisation funds such as SURE. Instead, it should provide support based on criteria that are carefully designed both to level the playing field among internationally active, energy-intensive firms and to encourage energy savings. This could happen in one of two ways.

One approach would be to (at least temporarily) take subsidisation of such firms out of the hands of national governments altogether. Industrial consumers that meet certain criteria – size, energy use, export orientation, perhaps value added inside the EU – would receive support from the EU-level fund. Parallel national-level support would be forbidden at least for the duration of the crisis. Support would either avoid price subsidies altogether (for example, if it is based on past energy consumption only) or it could be based on the ideas proposed by the German expert commission on the gas price brake, which would maintain incentives to save in line with market prices.

An alternative approach would be for national governments to continue administering funds, while imposing restrictions on how they can do this (state aid rules), and providing each government with earmarked resources. Disbursement would have to be done in a way that encourages gas savings in the industrial sector rather than gas consumption. One way to do this would be to require government to adopt criteria for state support that mirror those that would make sense at the EU level. Only governments that comply would benefit from the fund. Another way would be to link transfers from the EU fund to the actual savings achieved by each country.

The distributional implications of the fund will depend on how it is financed. If it is based on member-state borrowing in proportion to GDP or EU budget shares, it would benefit countries with a structurally high ratio of gas consumption by energy-intensive exporters to GDP, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. This redistributive effect could be neutralised by basing contributions on this ratio rather than on GDP. An additional redistributive effect, benefitting members with higher borrowing costs, would arise if the fund were to be based on common borrowing or joint guarantees.

An EU-level support fund cannot be the main pillar of the EU’s response to the energy crisis. That should be a coordinated set of demand-reducing and supply-expanding policies at the national level, and an EU-wide effort to obtain better deals from external suppliers. However, an EU fund can complement such efforts by maintaining a level playing field among energy-intensive exporters, by ensuring subsidies to these exporters are provided in a way that encourages energy savings, and by incentivising implementation of critical elements of the joint EU energy plan. The integrity of the single market is a core economic interest of all EU countries, not least Germany, which relies on the pan-European integration of its industrial supply chains. As such, the fund could play an important role.

The authors thank Grégory Claeys, Zsolt Darvas, Marie Le Mouel, Jean Pisani-Ferry, André Sapir and Nicolas Véron for helpful comments.

About the authors

  • Simone Tagliapietra

    Simone Tagliapietra is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also a Professor of EU Energy and Climate Policy at The Johns Hopkins University - School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Europe.

    His research focuses on the EU climate and energy policy and on the political economy of global decarbonisation. With a record of numerous policy and scientific publications, also in leading journals such as Nature and Science, he is the author of Global Energy Fundamentals (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and co-author of The Macroeconomics of Decarbonisation (Cambridge University Press, 2024).

    His columns and policy work are widely published and cited in leading international media such as the BBC, CNN, Financial Times, The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Corriere della Sera, Le Monde, El Pais, and several others.

    Simone also is a Member of the Board of Directors of the Clean Air Task Force (CATF). He holds a PhD in Institutions and Policies from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Born in the Dolomites in 1988, he speaks Italian, English and French.

  • Georg Zachmann

    Georg Zachmann is a Senior Fellow at Bruegel, where he has worked since 2009 on energy and climate policy. His work focuses on regional and distributional impacts of decarbonisation, the analysis and design of carbon, gas and electricity markets, and EU energy and climate policies. Previously, he worked at the German Ministry of Finance, the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, the energy think tank LARSEN in Paris, and the policy consultancy Berlin Economics.

  • Jeromin Zettelmeyer

    Jeromin Zettelmeyer has been Director of Bruegel since September 2022. Born in Madrid in 1964, Jeromin was previously a Deputy Director of the Strategy and Policy Review Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Prior to that, he was Dennis Weatherstone Senior Fellow (2019) and Senior Fellow (2016-19) at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Director-General for Economic Policy at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (2014-16); Director of Research and Deputy Chief Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (2008-2014), and an IMF staff member, where he worked in the Research, Western Hemisphere, and European II Departments (1994-2008).

    Jeromin holds a Ph.D. in economics from MIT (1995) and an economics degree from the University of Bonn (1990). He is a Research Fellow in the International Macroeconomics Programme of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), and a member of the CEPR’s Research and Policy Network on European economic architecture, which he helped found. He is also a member of CESIfo. He has published widely on topics including financial crises, sovereign debt, economic growth, transition to market, and Europe’s monetary union. His recent research interests include EMU economic architecture, sovereign debt, debt and climate, and the return of economic nationalism in advanced and emerging market countries.    

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