France is making an aggressive push to promote nuclear power in the EU, seeking to rally allies for battles to come in a stand-off with Germany over the bloc’s energy policy.
Paris on Tuesday persuaded 10 countries, including Hungary and Bulgaria, to join a “nuclear alliance” calling on Brussels to do more to back atomic energy, a move they argued would help meet climate goals while protecting the EU’s energy independence.
The establishment of the pro-nuclear group at a meeting in Stockholm, comes as France lobbies for concessions from the EU’s ambitious renewable power goals to obtain what would effectively be carve-outs for its nuclear industry, the mainstay of its electricity production. That has opened a rift with Germany and left other member states wondering if they will be forced to pick sides.
The disagreements are bleeding into a host of EU energy reforms, from a planned overhaul of electricity markets to how to promote hydrogen energy and renewables. It also reflects how Germany and France have had trouble forging consensus on a range of issues since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rattled the EU’s economic and political order.
French energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said she had a “productive discussion” with her German counterpart at the meeting of EU energy ministers in Stockholm on Tuesday, but the pair did not resolve their differences. “We do not want nuclear to be discriminated against,” she said.
Some EU countries are questioning why French president Emmanuel Macron’s government is pushing its agenda so hard given it risks reopening legislative battles on energy issues that had already been resolved.
“It is total war from everywhere [on the nuclear issue],” said one senior EU diplomat outside of the Franco-German nucleus, as several described French efforts to get “low carbon” — a byword for atomic power — into a number of draft regulations in recent months.
Another said the issue had “become a spoiler in every discussion”, when France had agreed last year to a broad outline of a renewable energy agenda without insisting on nuclear carve-outs.
The meeting hastily arranged by Paris was met with a degree of bewilderment by other EU states. Belgium, which recently extended the life of two reactors, was not invited, while Sweden, which has a modest atomic energy sector, declined to join. The Netherlands only signed up on condition that a paragraph in the joint statement linking nuclear power to renewables targets was deleted, people close to the talks said.
“[There were] pretty aggressive meetings between ministers,” said another EU diplomat.
Macron focused on atomic energy in late 2021 with a €50bn plan to renew some of France’s ageing nuclear reactors from 2035, with at least six new ones.
Pannier-Runacher told Les Echos newspaper on Wednesday she had asked industrial groups whether building more than 14 reactors by 2050 was feasible. France is also attempting to speed up renewable energy projects, one area where it lags neighbours and has missed EU targets.
In a sign of Macron’s commitment to the issue, he used a video address on Tuesday to urge the European Investment Bank to break with its past lending practices to finance all “low carbon technologies at our disposal, including nuclear”.
Germany, which is governed by a coalition including anti-nuclear Greens, has instead led a drive for a more ambitious rollout of renewables. The country has had to rapidly wean itself off Russian gas imports since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, putting energy issues high on its political agenda.
The spats have brought to light a gulf within the EU over nuclear energy — still fundamentally opposed by some countries such as Austria and Germany — as well as bringing up longstanding ideological differences that may make reforming energy markets at European level more complicated.
Paris and Berlin do not have the same view of the role the state plays in supporting the energy sector, with Germany favouring a more market-led industry, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think-tank.
“The situation is totally diverse across Europe [on energy] and Germany and France epitomise this divergence,” said Tagliapietra.
At a Franco-German summit in January, the countries had appeared to agree in a joint declaration on giving a prominent role to “low carbon” technologies in EU plans to cut carbon emissions. Germany even pledged to join a project to build a hydrogen pipeline that France and Spain have championed, known as H2Med.
But the agreement fell apart weeks later when the pair clashed again over the fine print of how nuclear should be treated in the so-called Red3 renewable energy directive, which is still being negotiated in Brussels and is expected to be adopted in a final vote in March.
France wants to be given credit for already having a low-carbon nuclear industry by tweaking the formula that requires member states to build a certain amount of renewable capacity by certain deadlines. Germany opposes such a move.
“Red3 is supposed to promote the expansion of renewable energy,” a spokeswoman for Germany’s economy ministry said. “Nuclear energy or nuclear-based hydrogen is not a renewable energy. So allowing nuclear energy or nuclear-based hydrogen to count towards the goals for expanding renewable energy will reduce the level of ambition.”
Riina Sikkut, Estonia’s energy minister, said the outcome of the debate on whether to make exemptions for nuclear under the renewable energy directive was “very difficult to predict because it is not rational”.
Despite such differences, France is not fighting a lone battle on nuclear. A second French official said on Tuesday, pointing to how it had allies on several fronts: “France is not isolated on this topic of nuclear — far from it.”