The Latvian EU Presidency has shown ambition when it comes to major cross-European projects, such as the Energy Union. But this time I did not only go to Riga to discuss Europe; I also went to Riga to discuss Latvia.
This week's visit to Riga wasn't my first. Back in the days I had come to know the city for its (excellent) ice hockey team. In recent years I have had quite a few political visits to this beautiful capital, especially during the current Latvian EU presidency. But this time the context was different; I wanted to personally explain to the Latvian people what benefits they can expect to see in their country from the Energy Union.
The day started over a healthy breakfast, courtesy of Prime Minister Straujuma. I congratulated the PM for her government's presidency of the Council and presented to her our analysis of the Energy Union's impact on Latvia's consumers, economy, and of course on our common environment. We discussed issues like the 2020 renewable objectives where Latvia is doing well, and its energy security, where the country can still benefit great deal from better interconnections.
The PM once again showed great interest in energy matters, especially in their regional perspective. I found a similar approach with Latvia's Economics Minister, Dana Reizniece-Ozola, an old-time ally of the Energy Union. After all, it was she who in February launched the Energy Union's "Riga Process". A conference organised by the Green10 think-tank was another opportunity to discuss the Latvian case in the context of the Energy Union, with researchers and with the Chairman of the European Parliament's ITRE Committee.
But what makes each of the visits very unique is the conversations I have with local decision-makers, stakeholders, and citizens. In this case, I had a fascinating discussion with Riga's mayor who explained to me some of the concrete challenges of the energy transition in his city. The deployment of electric cars, for example, is by far more complex in a city whose winters are so cold and humid. Residential heating efficiency is also a 'hot' topic in the city, given that banks do not give renovation credit unless at least ¾ of apartment owners agree on the renovation project. These are not abstract issues; they are very concrete problems that require solutions at various levels.
One of favourite parts of the Energy Union Tour is meeting with students, who always amaze me with their innovative forward-looking ideas. Judging by their questions and comments, I am also starting to sense that the younger generation is very enthusiastic about the switch to renewable energy sources and techie energy efficiency solutions; perhaps because youngsters are more inclined to using new technologies, perhaps because they will live longer with the consequences of climate change and understand best that action is needed. On this visit, I held a citizen dialogue at the Technical University of Riga which prides itself for the extremely high employment rate of its alumni (of whom a very successful one is my colleague, Vice President Dombrovskis).
Finally, although I came to Riga with a focus on the Latvian case, I combined the visit with the bi-annual COSAC plenary session which brings together Members of Parliament from all national parliaments across Europe. This was an excellent opportunity to remind parliamentarians that the Energy Union is not confined to Brussels, nor to Member States' governments; they too have an important role to play. The Energy Union can only succeed if it addresses all levels, local, regional, national and European, just like I had heard earlier that day from the Riga Mayor. My impression was that they were very keen on taking up this challenge and 'bring' the Energy Union back to their home countries. What happens in Brussels - stays in Brussels. And we wouldn’t want that to happen. The Energy Union must be a European project!
The next stop on my Tour will be to my own home town of Bratislava as I will present the Energy Union to the Slovak public. I'll be sure to bring some of its highlights on my social media accounts and on this blog.
On my left, Riga Mayor, Nils Ušakovs
With Members of the Riga City Council in their beautiful Town Hall
Pleasure to discover my colleague and friend VP Katainen on the same flight