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The uncertain future of energy in Central Europe

In Central Europe – or among V4 countries –, energy security is becoming increasingly complex, with individual countries taking different actions toward pursuing their national interests, with hardly any common ground in sight. In that regard, could Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic come up with new ways and strategies to cooperate more closely on energy policies?

The continuous dependence on coal for energy needs and insistence on using crop-based biofuels among countries from Central Europe are controversial matters and a source of irritation for some of its European allies. Nuclear power’s strong grip in the region is surely here to stay and will most likely continue to play a predominant role in the future of Central Europe’s energy policy, while a lot hangs in the balance of those countries’ future relations with Russia.

The long-standing addiction to coal-based energy in Central Europe

 Poland currently has the strongest reliance on coal in Europe, although coal is still greatly used throughout the V4 and the EU. The plans for the EU to phase-out coal subsidies in 2025 will force Poland to invest in different sources of energy, despite remaining loopholes in the mechanism. In a recent interview, Czech Environment Minister Richard Brabec stated that “42% of electricity in the Czech Republic is still produced from coal, but that number is at 80% in Poland.” Despite a few initiatives to curb that trend, coal still accounts for a large amount of Poland and Czechia’s energy consumption.

Slovakia and Hungary have already decided to begin a progressive phase-out from coal, according to Europe Beyond Coal. However, both Czechia and Poland haven’t announced any initiative to ditch coal just yet. The choice to phase-out could lead to a larger reliance on natural gas and imports, while the addiction to coal hampers the progress of these countries to meet their climate and environmental targets. The high usage of fossil fuel resources remains a significant concern, without a clear and feasible end in sight.

2. Primary sources of Energy V4
Source: Eurostat data

The divisive issue of crop-based biofuels

There have been setbacks within the V4’s ability to transition to cleaner energy sources. Crop-based biofuels play a significant role in the region, in regard to transportation, which prompted the Visegrád group’s strong opposition to accept the terms of the Renewable Energy Directive Recast, known as RED II in EU jargon – a package introduced by the European Commission in 2018 in order for EU members to meet their climate goals.

Although RED II highlights the importance of reducing the usage of crop-based biofuels from 2020 to 2030, the V4 has expressed strong reservations about the directive due to the possible impact on the agricultural sector and biofuel companies. “Climate goals will not be achieved in the coming decade without the crop-based biofuels, which have already brought significant greenhouse gas savings in transport.” argued Zuzana Jakubičková, director of legal and legislative affairs from the Slovak Association for Production and Use of Biofuels.

However, policy change in favor of the reduction for crop-based biofuels remains a possible scenario future amid growing calls for cleaner energy sources.

Nuclear energy remains a bedrock of the V4’s energy policy

Support for nuclear power is one of the most potent common positions regarding energy policy in Central Europe. The region is currently home to 14 nuclear power plants (out of nearly 190 EU-wide) and witnessing a nuclear phase-out in Visegrad Group countries is a highly unlikely scenario – and often presented as a strong guarantee of energy security and autonomy. The use of nuclear power will always prove to be a polarizing issue in the EU, with roughly half of member states using nuclear energy compared to another, nuclear-free half.

DCF 1.0
Temelín nuclear power plant in Czech Republic / Source: Budějcká Drbna

Investment towards nuclear power infrastructure are increasing, with numerous projects currently under construction or consideration in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although Poland is currently the only V4 country without nuclear plants, public support for nuclear energy is high: according to a Polish Energy Ministry poll, 76% of participants agreed that the Polish state should begin construction and financing of a nuclear power plant. However, construction of the first nuclear power plant in Poland is due to start in 2033.

Russia: friend or foe?

The Visegrád Four countries have been long dependent on Russian natural gas, creating a lot of hesitance in the region’s future with Russia and mounting calls to look elsewhere for natural gas imports. The example of the 2009 halt of Russian gas to Europe illustrated, in the eyes of many, the need for Central Europe to diversify its imports and sources of supply.

But this remains a divisive issue among V4 countries: while Poland is currently planning on ditching Russian gas and looking to the U.S. in an effort to diversify its imports, other countries, including Hungary, are increasingly looking East.

Projects for construction of a new nuclear power plant in Hungary, in cooperation with Russia, are already underway. Russian company Atomstrojexport has withdrawn from the construction on the Mochovce power plant in Slovakia, while Rosatom has expressed interest in the Czech Republic’s plans to build new reactors at its two power plants, Dukovany and Temelín.

Towards a common ground for energy goals in Central Europe?

The Visegrád Four will most likely continue to agree on a common stance on nuclear power usage and its significance for the region. However, the use of coal is an area of concern and may be a source of disagreements on coal usage and crop-based biofuel in the future, including through the impact of the newly-elected president and former environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová. Hungary and Slovakia’s potential push to promote cleaner sources of energy might widen the gap with the Czech Republic and Poland, while the uncertain future energy cooperation with Russia will play a strong role in shaping those countries’ policies in the years to come.

An illustration of some of the most divisive issues within Visegrad Group members, these issues will continue to test the strength of the bond between Central European countries in the future.