William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague.
Just days before the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the European Union began on July 1, Prime Minister Petr Fiala gave a televised speech to the nation, which left Czech energy experts perplexed.
Fiala raised eyebrows by stating he wanted the Czech Republic to become an “energy sovereign state” within the next five years. And his choice of terminology — using “sovereignty,” instead of the usual “security” — stood out amid a Continent-wide shift away from energy dependency on Russia. However, not in the context of Central Europe.
Thanks to Fiala, energy experts are now “puzzled by what the term ‘energy sovereignty’ really means,” Lukás Hrábek from Greenpeace Czech Republic told me. “It suggests some kind of energy independence, but the Czech Republic can’t be independent for oil or gas, at least in such a short time frame. If it only means replacing Russian fossil fuels with other fossil fuels from different problematic countries, it makes no sense to use such a noble term,” he said.
But beyond the semantics, what Fiala’s speech truly suggests is that for the Czech government, cutting out Russian energy imports and boosting domestic energy production are two sides of the same coin. Energy security and national “energy sovereignty” go hand in hand.
It remains unclear how exactly this will be achieved in the next five years, however. Nuclear power is key to the Czech Republic’s carbon-free future, but nuclear production won’t increase significantly before the mid-2030s. And while Fiala made much of ramped-up solar developments, renewables won’t cut out dependency on Russia in the short term either — the vast majority of the Czech Republic’s imported Russian gas is used for heating, not electricity generation.
As Hrábek suggests, switching out Russian fossil fuels for other suppliers is the most likely short-term fix here, together with greater energy efficiency. But this still leaves the country dependent on the world’s energy superpowers and directly contradicts the stated goal of energy sovereignty. The danger of such a lack of self-sufficiency is now being made clearer than ever by the closure of the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
Meanwhile, across the border, Poland exemplifies a very different approach to energy security. This is, in large part, thanks to a clearly defined — if internationally unpopular — sense of national energy sovereignty centered on the most controversial of natural resources: coal.
Poland is a coal-producing powerhouse, mining 55 million tons of hard coal and 52 million tons of lignite in 2021. The lion’s share of the nation’s energy supply still comes from coal, with Energetyka 24 editor-in-chief Jakub Kajmowicz saying the country “has been basing its energy security on coal for decades.”
This dependency isn’t without risk, as cheaper imported Russian and Ukrainian coal previously accounted for a significant proportion of heating for households. And since Russian imports were banned by the government back in March, shortages have led to rising prices.
In response, the government is now planning to subsidize coal for households, and the price increases may bolster public support for a more diverse energy sector, with an acceleration of renewable and nuclear developments forecast. But just last week, Minister of State Assets Jacek Sasin insisted “we cannot depart from coal when we have no alternative, as has been done for ideological reasons in some European countries.” Sasin said, “the fact that Poland has kept this raw material, and that it has it at its disposal today, is an important factor in Poland’s energy security.”
The picture shows wagons loaded with coal on a side track at Towarowy station in the southern Polish coal mining town of Rybnik, Poland | Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images
The ability to meet the majority of domestic demand with Polish coal also leaves the country free to push for a cessation of the Russian gas imports which are so shortsightedly relied upon as a “greener” fuel replacement by its neighbors. And by avoiding the slippery slope of foreign gas dependency, Poland has achieved a coal-based national energy sovereignty, which puts it at the tip of the spear in calling for tougher sanctions on Russian energy.
Poland, therefore, confirms Fiala’s suggested link between national sovereignty and energy security, albeit in a way that’s inimical to European Union’s climate plans.
Finally, another controversial example of energy sovereignty can be found in the EU’s other long-time rebel state, Hungary, where a fundamental difference in perception has resulted in isolation when it comes to Russia sanctions. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not only thinks sanctions don’t hurt Russia, but what’s more he believes “energy sanctions” and “energy security” are two antithetical concepts.
Orbán has committed heavily to energy cooperation with Moscow, so it’s no surprise that he sees pragmatic relations with the Kremlin as key to short-term security. At the start of July, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó met the leaders of Russian energy giant Rosatom to discuss speeding up the expansion of Paks nuclear power plant, so that two new reactors can start working by 2030.
But there’s another reason behind Hungary’s opposition to energy sanctions — and again, it boils down to a question of national sovereignty.
Orbán rejects the received wisdom that EU member countries share the same fundamental interests in the the global energy sector’s realignment. Instead, he sees Hungary’s energy security as inseparable from its sovereign national interests, which may run contrary to the interests of its allies. In a radio interview, amid fraught negotiations on banning Russian oil, he bullishly declared, “I am not prepared to follow the interests of America, Germany or any other European country — not even those of our best friends — and regard them as the interests of Hungary.”
Orbán was, unsurprisingly, condemned for undermining Western unity against Russia. But he also articulated a truth — one that is exemplified by Poland and driven at by Fiala in his ambition to make the Czech Republic an energy sovereign state.
The EU currently has no shared vision of what energy security really means — let alone how to achieve it. And ultimately, there can be no energy security without national sovereignty.