If truth is the first casualty of war, then the collapse of political illusions must be the second. War and its outcomes are never certain. From Thucydides to Clausewitz, connoisseurs of the phenomenon have counselled against its recourse unless it is informed by clear and achievable goals. Violence clarifies. In the case of Vladimir Putin it has exposed the illusion of Eurasianism, the failings of Russian hard power, its loss of markets for its arms industry, and threatens the integrity of the Russian Federation, ultimately reducing it to a satrapy of Greater China.
In the case of Europe, war has clarified not only its relationship with post-Soviet Russia, but also the delusions informing its net-zero energy policy and its future economic security. Significantly, this is not the case with the US (or for that matter Canada and Australia) which despite their commitment to various international environmental protocols remain secure in their fossil fuel and uranium energy resources.
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As a result of three decades of punitive environmental governance, Europe faces a very difficult winter and an uncertain political and economic future. All European wars since the eighteenth century have been resource wars (whether over population, coal or iron and now oil and gas). This is a basic fact of modern European history that its elites and the history’s fools that advise them ignore at their and their electorates’ cost. The Ukraine war, and the misconceived sanctions regime, immediately exposed Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and oil. Consequently, despite recent Russian reverses on the battlefield, Europe remains ambivalent in its support for Ukraine, democracy and freedom.
The energy issue is a case study in how a political elite, infused with abstract norms and transnational idealism about the end of history, created the perfect conditions for the revenge of political realism. Whilst Europe eschewed the hard truths of geopolitics, geopolitics happened on its doorstep.
At first, of course, Western European diplomats continued to argue about whether Putin represented a threat to peace and stability at all, despite the repeated warnings of those closer to Russia’s border. As European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen confessed in her State of the Union speech in September: “We should have listened to those who know Putin … voices inside our Union—in Poland, in the Baltics, and across Central and Eastern Europe.”
European delusion has quickly assumed the form of an utterly avoidable energy crisis. For the EU it represents a regional political humiliation, whilst in the UK it is a very British one, a direct result of a generation of cross-party policy failure.
Together Western Europe’s political elites conspired to deliver a perfect storm. In Germany it reflects the influence of a red/green lobby that inspired the ostensibly conservative Merkel administration to close all its nuclear facilities, which provided 13 per cent of its energy, by 2022. Three nuclear power stations closed in 2021.
Germany is of course central to the European economy. Germany faces a staggering 65 per cent collapse in industrial output if Putin turns off the taps completely, potentially plunging the country into a deep recession. The Scholz government’s seizure of three Russian-owned oil refineries on German soil in late September, in order to secure their oil holdings, indicated the extent of political panic. Asset appropriation is usually the preserve of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and indeed Russia, both before and since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is unusual in a Western democracy.
Elsewhere, in Italy, business and domestic users currently face huge hikes in energy prices, although its deluded former Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, declared that the movement away from gas represented only “small sacrifices for large rewards”. Not surprisingly, the economy, Ukraine and EU energy regulations played a decisive role in the Italian elections that gave the populist coalition led by Giorgia Meloni a comprehensive victory. Matteo Salvini’s League, which forms part of the new populist coalition, considers energy sanctions are contributing to “il suicidio Italiano”.
Meanwhile the UK, which left the EU in 2020, remains committed to the net-zero carbon agenda to the detriment of its energy security. Grave errors by past energy ministers range from: opposition to nuclear power in 2001; refusal to back new clean coal plants in 2009; supporting wood pellet plants over new gas in 2012; the end of carbon capture funding in 2015; the closure of the Rough gas storage site for reserves in 2017; the gas fracking ban in 2019.
At the same time, to meet EU rules, between 2000 and 2017 over a third of the UK’s baseload electricity generating capacity was closed without any comparable net replacement. Instead, ministers approved weather-dependent renewables and more interconnectors to import power from the Continent, thus offshoring British energy jobs, resilience and security. New nuclear is already twenty years late.
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson oversaw the running down of British energy security, diversity and resilience, representing the biggest national policy failure since the Second World War. In July the National Grid had to panic-buy staggeringly expensive Belgian electricity to avoid power cuts. As power demand surged during the heatwaves, the National Grid paid £9724 per megawatt hour, more than fifty times the typical price, to prevent blackouts in London.
Meanwhile, a compliant media and the Euro blob keep citing Russia and Ukraine as the reason for this very avoidable energy crunch. The real story is much more damning, delusional and home-grown. The writing was on the wall years ago as governments across Europe slavishly followed EU diktats and closed coal, nuclear and oil-fired power stations without clear policies to build cleaner equivalent replacements. Weather-dependent windmills and solar panels could never fill the gap. The EU’s various power station directives, first supported by the Blair government in 2001, forced the UK to start shutting key plants from 2012.
The crisis has, moreover, exposed Europe’s over-dependence on imported power. This has huge implications for energy security, resilience, future bills and climate change. Why has reliable home- grown generation across the EU, and particularly in the UK, been put at such a discount?
The EU, UK, French and German governments, their advisers, their media and academe all insist it’s a result of Covid disruption and the Ukraine war, and a mere bump on the road to net zero by the end of the decade. Actually, it’s the net zero agenda, the policy of carbon offsetting and what the US former bond trader Stephen Soukup describes in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital as the dictatorship of woke capitalism that have generated the current malaise.
The demonisation of the gas, oil and coal bridge to a non-carbon future has inflicted notable self-harm on the potential of UK and, by extension EU, energy self-reliance. The forced deployment of thermodynamically incompetent and environmentally damaging “renewables” has produced high consumer costs, great fragility of supply and the proliferation of junk assets via environmental governance criteria, undermining the energy foundations of the economy. Nor, ironically, has it contributed to ameliorating environmental problems in useful ways. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria were written into the 2017 UN Principles for Responsible Investing. Pension funds and investment trusts sign up to these woke principles with economic and geopolitical costs. Soukup reports that by the middle of 2017 the ESG movement had gone mainstream as some “1600 asset owners representing $62 trillion signed the UN PRI”.
Net zero explains why the UK failed to develop gas fracking or grant licences for further exploration of the North Sea, preferring green virtue-signalling by offsetting its carbon emissions and importing gas from the Middle East. Like celebrities offsetting flying private jets by planting trees in the Amazon, or being asked to offset your carbon footprint every time you step on a plane, this mechanism only facilitates a multi-billion-dollar financial services industry and increasingly questionable ESG investment vehicles. It is the twenty-first-century equivalent of the papal indulgences sold on a mass scale in the sixteenth century to offset the cost of building the Vatican. The economic consequence of that was the Reformation and a century of religious warfare, culminating in a seventeenth-century global crisis.
The energy crisis has exposed the dangerous and failed doctrine of draconian out-of-date targets and poor policy-making over a generation. A failed energy policy inflicts huge pain on households, industry and the wider economy. It diverts investment and stops job creation. Europe needs to learn and understand how and why political leaders have failed in this most critical area of policy in the national interest.
The tragedy is that it took an energy price shock of the scale currently sweeping Europe to rouse its political elite. Yet while von der Leyen’s recent mea culpa might have been expected to galvanise the EU, it has instead further exposed the divisions between EU states in the east, who generally advocate a tougher stance including further sanctions and more military and humanitarian aid, and those in the west, including Germany, who fixate on the political and economic fallout of a prolonged conflict.
David Martin Jones is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department, King’s College London. He is the author of History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of History (2020)