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Paks hearing summary

Given the recent developments in the Paks-case, the hearing on the planned nuclear power plants at Paks – jointly hosted by Benedek Jávor and Rebecca Harms – was given a special emphasis.

Ms. Harms started by reminding the audience that just as we have passed the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima accident, we are nearing to the 29th of the Chernobyl disaster. She also expressed her concern over the incident at the Paks power plant in 2003 and enlisted some of the serious risks of the aftermath of the incident, such as the shipment of hazardous waste via the conflict-heavy Ukraine. In her introduction she urged the European Commission to respond.

In his opening speech, Mr. Benedek Jávor started by recalling that the EURATOM Supply Agency has just recently taken a negative decision on the fuel supply contract. Mr. Jávor warned that since the Hungarian Government has not engaged in a proper dialogue with the EU institutions, including EURATOM, now it has to restart negotiations; therefore, the Russian partner’s involvement in the project might easily become uncertain due to the conditions on fuel supply diversification. Meanwhile, during his visit to Budapest, President Vladimir Putin made no secret of his commitment to carry out the project despite the changed economic conditions. Mr. Jávor emphasized that beyond the obvious environmental dangers, there are serious political and economic risks that cannot be properly assessed due to the lack of public debate and the classification of all the relevant documents. He also reminded that in the context of the debate on European Energy Security Strategy so far, gas supply has been in the centre of attention while nuclear investments carry the same risks despite the multiple forms of dependence it creates. The dependence is not only financial and technological, but also on the fuel cycle.

Ámon Ada Paks konferenciaMs. Ada Ámon, director of Energiaklub, explained that the problem with Paks2 is Paks2 itself. Today the 4 block at Paks have a generation capacity of 2000 MWs. This would be more than doubled by the new nuclear power plant to 4400 MWs. The cost of the total investment, she continued, is 12.5 billion Euros, which is 20% of the Hungarian yearly budget with 10 billion coming from the Russians, the rest from state budget. This will lead to a substantial increase in energy production in Hungary, which, given the long term trends in energy consumption, would barely leave any room for other types of energy on the national market. From among the problems raised by the project, Ms. Ámon emphasized the lack of transparency and public debate, which highly increases the likeliness of corruption. Furthermore, we are facing a case of potential illegal state aid, the exclusion of experts from the decision making process, the lack of an alternative energy-scenario, and the centralization of the country’s energy supplies. All the above mentioned go against EU objectives. She also emphasized the lack of tendering, calling it the sign of the government’s indifference towards market efficiency. In addition, there is a persistent threat of increasing national debt by 5-8%. According to Ms. Ámon Paks2 will never be built, because it does not serve either interest of the Hungarian public or the European Union.

Stephen Thomas Paks ConferenceProfessor Stephen Thomas from the University of Greenwich presented a comparison of the British Hinkley Point C and the Paks power plants. Beyond the many similarities, including the lack of tendering and the probability that tax-payers will suffer the consequences if the plan goes wrong, there is a difference in the ability to withdraw from carrying out the project: while in the UK this possibility can still be considered, the situation in Hungary is not so straightforward. Another difference lies between the economic situations of the two countries: Hungary is much more prone to go bankrupt after building two new power plants, whereas the UK would most likely not suffer such harsh consequences. The risks are also higher in the case of Paks, because there is a possibility that the new power plants will not yet be operational by 2026, the year when the government will have to start paying back the loan. In addition, the question of the inclusion of the overnight costs in the price also differs in the two cases: these costs are clearly included in the prices of the Hinkley Point power plants; as to Paks, the status of the cited price is not obvious. An important similarity, though, is the classification of data, hence the lack of public discourse. There is also quite a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the affordability of the Paks plants: the Russians, said Mr. Stephenson, cannot even afford plants in their own country; it is highly questionable, therefore, how they would be able to pull through with the Paks investment.

Tóth István János Paks ConferenceDr. Todor Galev, researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria, explains how the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis have had a major impact on dealing with the question of energy dependency. Mr. Galev expressed his concerns over how Bulgarian politics are penetrated by Russian influence, meanwhile suspicions circulate that certain Bulgarian political parties are financed by Russia. He urged measures to be taken in connection with the formation of a regional cooperation, saying that without such a joint action, no country can protect itself from Russian influence.

Dr. István János Tóth, researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Corruption Research Centre in Budapest, described the nature of corruption within Hungary’s energy sector, where the lack of transparency is more typical than in any other sector. With regard to the Paks2 project, he described the so-called “white elephant syndrome”, i.e. the lack of an actual objective, where corruption itself is the goal. Based on statistical evidence, he said that the Paks2 project will be loss-making. He presented a comparison of 75 projects carried out between the years of 1966 and 1977, which pointed out that the price of nuclear power plant investments were the double or even the triple of their original price in addition to the fact that the time of their construction also typically expanded.

Massimo Garribba Paks ConferenceOn behalf of the European Commission, Mr. Massimo Garribba from DG Energy emphasized two major elements in connection with EU regulations since the Fukushima accident: firstly, the so-called stress tests and secondly the improvement of the legislative framework. He reminded, however, that nuclear energy is an important element of the EU energy mix. He enlisted the different aspects under the EU’s scrutiny of the project. First, he confirmed that negotiations about the fuel supply contract have restarted. He also confirmed that both DG COMP and DG GROW are instigating the project. In addition, he expressed the Commission’s commitment to reach an increased transparency in nuclear issues and called on the Hungarian government to declassify as many documents as possible.

The question of illegal state aid recurred during the question panel as well. Professor Thomas explained that at this stage there is no way of knowing whether there is state aid involved, because the documents are made secret; however, he said, it is clear that public money is involved, since the company responsible for carrying out the project is itself state-owned. His stance was seconded by Mr. Garribba, who said that some clarifications are required in order to know more. The debate on this issue tied in with, Mr. Garribba’s stance that the Commission aims towards requesting as much transparency as possible.

The topic of the lack of a public debate over the Paks decisions was given a twist as Dr. Attila Aszódi, responsible government official for the construction of the new Paks power plants, gave his remarks on the issues discussed at the hearing. He began by expressing his disappointment that no one from the Hungarian authorities had been invited to tell their side of the story. Mr. Jávor later responded to this remark saying he had no intention of creating an inconvenient situation in which a governmental official was asked questions he is legally bound not to answer, as the documents on Paks2 are classified. However, he expressed his appreciation for Mr. Aszódi’s participation in the hearing, saying this way at least a debate can finally evolve.

Mr. Aszódi also explained that one third of Hungary’s electricity is imported and it mainly consists of coal-based technologies. “We strongly believe that this isn’t sustainable,” he said, “we need energy sources not relying on coal.” 40% of Hungary’s electricity should come form from nuclear energy in the long run according to the energy mix chosen for long term by the Hungarian government, he explained. He also pointed out that the country would be much more able to use green energy if it had high mountains, like the Alps; however, Hungary is flatland and as such, its energy policy is determined by limited possibilities.

In response to Mr. Tóth’s presentation and other remarks on non-transparency, Mr. Aszódi rejected claims that the Paks project was in any way corrupt, as corruption, he said, is a crime. He urged the speakers to initiate a legal procedure if they suspected corruption. He also warned Mr. Tóth not to mix the concept of corruption risk with nuclear safety. He stated that the 12,5 billion euros is the total cost of the project with all inflation and other risks included.

Mr. Jávor provided Mr. Aszódi with the conclusions of a recent study that found that there had not been any investigations initiated on corruption cases by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the last 5 years. He also called Mr. Aszódi’s attention to the fact that there were a number of occasions when he filed reports on corruption with documents and evidence to the public prosecutor, however, without any effect. He also mentioned, that the total cost cannot be 12,5 billion euros, because the interest is around 11 billion to begin with, so the total cost (overnight+capital costs together) of the project should be over 20 billion euros.

Ms. Harms also reacted to Mr. Aszódi’s comments telling about her visit to Paks in 2013, when her aim was to find out more about the project; however, as she said referring to the problem of secrecy and non-transparency, during her visit she found out more about the gardening around the plants than the actual project itself. Should she be invited to Paks this time to have a more elaborate view, she would be more than happy to come, she said.

SOER workshop opening speech

Dear participants,

First of all, let me express my warm welcome to all of you who decided to take part in the SOER2015 launch event at the European Parliament.

A special welcome to Mr Falkenberg and other representatives of the COM, Mr Bruyninckx and his colleagues from the European Environment Agency including Ms Fay, Mr Scoullos, to our knowledgeable expert speakers, the co-hosts and all MEP colleagues. Unfortunately, Mr Leinen could not join us but we very much welcome Ms Miriam Dalli as our co-host from the SnD Group, together with Mr Jose Inacio Faria representing the ALDE group. I am Benedek Jávor, Green MEP and first vice-chair of the ENVI Committee.

I feel honoured to co-host the event as the State and Outlook report is highly relevant for the work of the members of the European Parliament and other stakeholders as its serves as a key source of feedback for environmental policies in place in terms of their achievements and impacts. This is an essential element we crucially need for policy adjustment and improvement.

The flagship report of the Agency analyses the state of Europe’s environment every 5 years. It is not a simple study with standalone figures. Importantly, the 2015 report provides a state and outlook placed in the context of the 7th Environment Action Programme and its 2050 vision. The report clearly demonstrates that despite some positive short-term trends Europe is not on track to achieve long-term sustainability. Just to name a few areas where long term prospects are alarming: land use and soil functions, climate change and the associated health risks, energy consumption as well as transport demand. Biodiversity and habitat loss, land-take and overexploitation of resources continue despite existing policy targets at different levels. As the report itself stresses, in some cases the level of ambition of our existing policies seems inadequate. Current efforts will not be sufficient to achieve the 2050 vision set in the 7EAP.

As our speakers will also highlight, we urgently need to create more integrated, coherent and truly ambitious policies and actions. We need to further strengthen implementation and improve governance as well as our institutions. I believe that institutions should better reflect long term sustainability efforts and the needs of future generations. New approaches in governance could help us exploit synergies among policies and policy approaches. And above all, we need to bring about profound changes in practices and behaviour – taking into account possible lock-in effects and trade-offs as well. These aspects are all reflected in the SOER report. The report goes beyond the long-term vision and offers credible and feasible transition pathways.

Another asset of the SOER2015 report is that it is based on objective, reliable and comparable environmental information, and draws upon the evidence and knowledge base available to the Agency and the European environment information and observation network in 39 European countries. We need to further improve the knowledge base, to rethink some of our indicators and in more general terms, how we measure progress. I was also happy to find reference to the importance of giving full value to natural capital.

The report states that implementation of existing environment and climate policies resulted in improvement on the state of the environment and reduced health risks yet it also stresses that further implementation efforts by countries can reinforce these trends. I am convinced that governments and other actors need to be assisted, inter alia by providing room and level playing field for citizens` based initiatives, by ensuring that citizens are well-informed and have effective access to justice in line with the Aarhus Convention and by strengthening environmental inspections e.g. through extending the inspection requirements. These are of utmost importance when it comes to the effectiveness of our policies. As for better regulation and governance, I feel a bit concerned about some recent developments in this respect – e.g. in the 2015 work programme of the Commission there are a huge number of withdrawals or modification of pending proposals including crucial pieces of environmental and health legislation such as the circular economy package. I believe that the EU must prioritise legislation that serves the citizens’ needs and lead to the fulfilment of the 2050 vision of 7EAP ’living well, within the limits of our planet’.

To sum up, I would like to underline one of the key messages of the SOER2015 report, namely the need to recalibrate existing policy approaches. I truly believe that policy coherence, long-term thinking and sustainability should become the guiding principles for the revision and continuous improvement of European policy processes. I envisage a policy improvement process based on three distinct elements:

  1. proper signals on the state of the environment quality of life, well-being, progress and social cohesion, transition to a green economy as well as information on potential synergies and trade-offs of our policies..
  2. systematic evaluation of existing polices to assess the tangible effects, the actual added value as well as to point out the shortcomings.
  3. political willingness and stakeholder engagement, outreach to the general public to help them understand the various effects EU policies can have on their daily life

I believe that the reason the SOER reports are extremely valuable is because they contribute substantially to all three elements I just mentioned. I truly hope that the report will experience a broadening uptake reaching out to an ever-wider audience, including the Members of the European Parliament and all policy and decision makers at all levels. This could lay the foundations for reshaping European policies with holistic and long term approaches.

As for the format of the event, first the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, Prof. Bruninckx will deliver his keynote speech on the main outcomes and policy-relevant messages of the SOER2015 report. Then our well-known and very knowledgeable experts speakers, namely Mr Luc Bas, Director of IUCN, Mr Ernst von Weizsäcker,Co-President of the Club of Rome, Ms Laura Burke,Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland and Mr Janez Potocnik, co-chair of the UNEP International Resource Panel will respond from perspectives of the priority objectives of the 7th Environment Action Programme (natural capital, resource efficiency, human health and well-being, implementation) In the Q/A session we will open the floor for all participants to raise questions, give comments. This will be followed by reflections from Mr Falkenberg, Director General of DG ENVI. After the closing remarks by Mr Jose Inacio Faria we will have a short, technical break and a cocktail reception here in the room.

I wish ourselves a fruitful workshop and a lively exchange of views.

Benedek Javor, MEP

European Citizen Summit: a different vision for Europe

The European Union (EU) should leave behind its economic growth obsession and focus instead on more transparent and sustainable policies, according to hundreds of people gathered at the flagship European Citizens summit event in Brussels.

A recurring question surrounding the Parliament elections in May was whether and how the EU will be able to regain the public’s lost trust in the European project. Today, hundreds of European citizens and people living in Europe voiced their hopes, expectations and demands as they reminded EU leaders that, if Brussels is not to fall into irrelevance for millions of its citizens, it should become more inclusive, fair and transparent not only on paper but in its proposals and policies too (like the Europe 2020 strategy).“Economic growth cannot be the sole driver of the new Europe that we were promised in the European elections. The hardship endured by many over the last years has prompted the need to discuss an alternative vision of Europe; a new approach that puts people’s interests and well-being first, and not as an afterthought of financial markets. We deserve a fairer Europe accountable to the people who make it, not to the CEOs and bankers who want to rule it,” said Emma Woodford, spokesperson for the EU Civil Society Contact Group.

While a recent Eurobarometer survey showed that 95% of EU citizens want Europe to do more to protect the environment, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s President-elect, has hardly left an occasion unused to dismantle European policies on climate change and the environment. The ten environmental umbrella organisations in Europe are alarmed by the mission statements issued by the climate and environment commissioners-designated (here and here) as they commit next to nothing to keep the environment’s degradation to the lowest level possible. The 2nd Citizens Summit channelled Europeans’ voices and concerns into concrete, urgent demands to EU leaders and policy-makers. Participants discussed on how to deal with the many xenophobes, macho’s & anti-democrats coming to the new European Parliament. They agreed that Climate Change is the biggest market failure ever and that the narritve surrounding the solution should shift to a human rights discourse. They agreed that the future of the EU should be underpinned by an economic model based on a fair and inclusive distribution of resources, and not on a race for wealth accumulation; in a society driven by human rights and values and not by narrow, short-term economic targets; and in a shift from power concentration and a lack of transparency of political processes, such as the TTIP negotiations.

The Summit’s participants agreed that a leadership fit for the XXI century must understand that resources and services such as water, education, health, information, environment, culture and public spaces are common goods, not the privilege of a few. The EU is also a responsible global actor bound to spread its underpinning values beyond its borders: social justice, respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. To make that happen, and among other proposals, the Summit discussed the Degrowth movement. As Vincent Liegey, spokesperson of the French Degrowth movement, stressed: “in reminding us that an infinite growth in a finite world is an absurd concept, Degrowth demonstrates the physical and also the cultural limits to growth. Through its radical critics and also through alternatives, initiatives and reflexions, it opens and experiments paths to a democratic transition to new sustainable and desirable models of society.”

Susan George, social activist and chairperson of the Transnational Institute, commented: “in a final, anti-democratic action, the outgoing Commission has rejected a European Citizens Initiative on the TTIP —the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  If ratified, this scandalous, secretive treaty will lower standards for health, food, work, environment and hand over our most important decisions to transnational corporations.   This Citizens Summit is an arena both of resistance and of renewed commitment to build a different Europe—inclusive, fair, green and democratic.”

MEPs Bart Staes and Philippe Lamberts. Source: ejolt.org
MEPs Bart Staes and Philippe Lamberts. Source: ejolt.org

A dozen MEPs came to the Summit to have a direct conversation with citizens. Bart Staes from the Greens encouraged civil society by saying that every success so far has come when good proposals in the parliament were backed up by strong public pressure – citing the example of a ban on pesticides that kill the bees. Philippe Lamberts, also from the Greens, said he had read Piketty and realized fully that Europe is beyond saving if we don’t reverse the trend on inequality. Benedek Javor, another green MEP, warned that the brutal silencing of Hungarian civil society needs a much stronger reaction. He mentioned an example of a German MEP from the EPP using the same reasoning as Victor Orban to get rid of funding to civil society. A slightly different vision was presented by Hans-Olaf Henkel – MEP for the conservatives and reformists. His vision was one of a decentralised Europe where responsibilities were handed down closer to the people themselves. Here was one industry representative talking about subsidiarity, seemingly acknowledging – when questionned about it – the need for local currencies.

The EU is at a critical juncture. The economic crisis has turned the lives of millions of people living in Europe upside down. It cannot happen again. It is high time for our leaders to start listening to Europe’s citizens – the very people they are supposed to work for – and put people’s needs at the heart of their policy agendas. The 2nd Citizens’ Summit has sent a clear, bold message: if it is to survive, the EU should leave behind its growth obsession and replace it with a model based on rights, justice and democracy. A statement with which very few would disagree.

More info:

The European Citizens Summit has been organised by the EU Civil Society Contact Group and DEEEP, a project of CONCORD. DEEEP is co-funded by the European Union.The EU Civil Society Contact Group (CSCG) brings together eight large rights and value based NGO sectors – culture, environment, education, development, human rights, public health, social and women.

Pictures by Sophie De Groote