Has Macron shot France's energy industry in the foot?

21 January 2022

4:15 AM

21 January 2022

4:15 AM

Gas prices are soaring. Europe could be about to witness electricity shortages. Power companies are collapsing by the day, and, on top of all that, the government is set to phase out traditional energy to meet its net zero target.

So might think that a cable to ship in cheap, greener electricity from the other side of the Channel is something of a knight in shining armour. Yet the government blocked the proposal today, and it was absolutely right to do so. Britain may need all the electricity it can get its hands on right now — but the last thing it should do is increase its dependence on Macron and Putin.

The Aquind plan has been knocking around for a couple of years. It was an ambitious project to build a cable from Normandy into Portsmouth. It would plug into France’s abundant nuclear, wind and solar energy resources, whizz it across to the UK, and use it to power British homes and offices. By itself, it could supply up to 5 per cent of our total demand, and even better it would be paid for by the private sector. What’s not to like about that? Well, quite a lot as it happens.

There were two problems, one major and one minor. The minor one is that France’s nuclear capacity is not what it was, with a series of reactors closed for repairs.

The major issue is political: France is hardly a reliable source of electricity. Over the last couple of years President Macron has dropped plenty of hints that he might well switch the power off if he doesn’t get his way over fishing rights, tariffs, Northern Ireland, or anything else that happens to be annoying him. On top of that, Aquind was controlled by a consortium of Russian and Ukrainian interests, with the businesses operating with all the transparency for which the two countries are noted. A Macron-Putin electricity pipeline? The proposal suddenly sounds very different.

The decision by the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today to block the plan is absolutely the right one. The UK has been painfully negligent on energy security for the last decade at least. It has run down storage facilities, refused to develop domestic power sources, and it is only because the winter this year has been relatively mild (so far) that it has managed to keep the lights on. At last it is starting to take the need to have secure, reliable supplies seriously.

As for Macron, threats to switch off the power may have seemed electorally smart at the time. But if export markets are closed for a major French industry, the price will be a high one.

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