Thank you, Lieve, for your introduction.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
I was very glad to accept the invitation of the European Policy Centre. Not only because I recognise EPC as one of the best think-tanks in Brussels, presided by no other than former Council President, Herman Van Rompuy. But also because the launch of the Task Force on Energy Poverty is so timely, relevant, and impactful.
We have underlined the social dimension of the Energy Union and the energy transition in both the Energy Union Strategy and in the State of the Energy Union Report. This is personally important for me. Let me briefly explain why.
As you know, the EU has set itself ambitious targets in being world leaders in the integration of renewable energies, of developing new innovative and disruptive technologies, of growing our economy and improving the standards of living of our citizens. But I believe a society is not measured only by its most successful researchers and entrepreneurs. A society is also measured by its ability to care for its weakest and most vulnerable. And that is why all throughout our efforts to grow the economy, transform our technologies, and smarten our systems - we must constantly stop, look back and see if anyone was left behind.
In practical terms, there will be sectors or regions which will have difficulties and where jobs will be lost. And there will be others that will grow and benefit from the transition. We must deal with both aspects: we must make sure that the jobs of the future are created in Europe; that our clean technologies are exported around the world; that our education systems target the technologies and skills of the future. At the same time, however, we must make sure that our workers and employees get the skills which they need for the future; that we support the regions in their transition to a low-carbon economy.
This leads me to the other element of the social dimension: energy poverty.
European consumers are today the most protected and they live in the most egalitarian continent in the world. But that is not enough. If over 10% of European households cannot afford to heat their homes properly, we must do more. If pensioners have to sleep in the kitchen, because this is the only warm place in the house; if children cannot do their homework because their family was disconnected from electricity, or if people fall sick or die early because they cannot heat or cool their homes, then our efforts clearly have not been enough.
And these things happen in today's Europe. During my Energy Union Tour I have heard about the problems in many countries due to high energy prices.
I have heard of these problems not only in our poorer Member States. Even in a country like Germany - which offers social benefits for energy - 350,000 households were temporarily disconnected from electricity in 2015 because they couldn't pay the bill.
Energy poverty is a reality in Europe, which we have to take into account when we elaborate our policies - also at EU level.
I don't want to dive into the technicalities but a first step is putting in place the methodological building blocks, agreeing on some common definitions and getting data which is reliable and comparable. We have announced this already in the Communication "Delivering a New Deal for Energy Consumers". We are also preparing to launch an EU Building Stock Observatory which will include certain indicators on energy poverty.
I want to be very clear: collecting data is important. But it shouldn't be an excuse for a wait-and-see policy. We should use the opportunities which we have to act.
If I were to wait for collecting data and more reports, it would soon be too late for taking action under this Commission. Of course, the main responsibility lies with the Member States, the regions and the local communities.
But: you might have heard me saying several times over the last weeks: 2016 is the year of delivery for the Energy Union. We have to translate our strategy into concrete action this year.
That is why your Task Force is so timely.
This year, we will put on the table a review of the electricity market design, the review of the Energy Efficiency Directive and of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. In each of these legislative texts, we should see what the impact on energy poor consumers is and what we can do for them.
We already have some provision on disconnections in our market directives. 17 Member States already have some restrictions on disconnection from energy due to non-payment. But this means 11 do not. I think that we can do more.
I don't want to ban disconnections. Energy has a price, and we are working on a design which provides the right price signals for a more efficient use of energy, for the use of cleaner energy and for making investments in the energy sector attractive.
But: Maybe we can establish a few more safeguards before someone is disconnected. No one wants to sit in the dark or sit in a cold apartment or house. Disconnection is usually a sign for a major problem in someone's life. The threat of disconnection should trigger an offer to help. I don't want to prescribe a specific solution. It wouldn't work in a Europe of 28 very different Member States. But I would be delighted to have some ideas from your Task Force what we can do, at EU and national levels. A liberalised market also implies some responsibility.
Of course, in addition to the disconnection issue, there are many mechanisms we can use in order to alleviate energy poverty. These include empowering consumers so that their bills are clearer and switching is made easier; ensuring a competitive and well-functioning internal energy market; improving the efficiency of residential houses through financial vehicles; ensuring Member States respect their obligation to protect vulnerable consumers, and more.
I have mentioned financing and this is also an area where the Commission can act.
When it comes to energy efficiency, we have a real challenge for the energy poor. It is expensive to renovate houses or buy energy efficient devices. Therefore, we must make sure that energy efficiency policies also help those who have financial difficulties, be it a lack of resources or difficulties to get a loan.
The review of the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive are an opportunity for new ideas and initiatives.
Here as well I would like to challenge your Task Force to come up with ideas.
The European Structural and Investment Funds are the largest sources of EU funding for energy efficiency in buildings and enterprises, with around €18 billion for the period until 2020. These funds will significantly contribute to the deep renovation of buildings across the EU, including social housing.
The Juncker Fund, the European Fund for Strategic Investment, has also invested in projects for the renovation of housing, e.g. in France.
We will have to work on this further this year, notably in view of the initiative which we called "Smart Finance for smart buildings" where we want to make investments in energy efficiency of buildings much simpler and more accessible to small scale projects in cities and regions.
Here, like for the fight against energy poverty in general, we have to share best practices across Europe. There are many ideas and projects in Europe, and they can inspire many others. This is also something where the Commission can help.
Before I conclude, I would like to thank you again your initiative. It is not often that such issues are addressed in Brussels. Therefore, it is a true pleasure to witness how members of very different sectors come together, under the auspices of a prestigious think tank, for the sake of such an important societal cause. Just on the next panel you will have members of the industry, academia, and a Member of the European Parliament – all dedicated to reducing energy poverty.
I think this underlines the importance of the issue, and it gives me hope that we can deliver this year on the Energy Union in general, and in particular on energy poverty as one of its important social features.
I am very much looking forward to receiving input from your work.
Thank you very much.