The Benelux, once laying the foundation of the European Union as we know it today, still endeavors to be a frontrunner in European cooperation, also in the context of contemporary challenges such as the energy transition through the green recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and digitization. In January of this year, the Benelux Union presented its Joint Work Program for 2021-2024, as well as this year’s priorities under Belgian Presidency of the Benelux Union. As the Benelux Treaty lays down one of its main objectives to be ‘a living laboratory for Europe’, the cross-border cooperation plans for the upcoming years echo this ambition to show the added value that regional cooperation can have for European integration. Consequently, this also offers new opportunities for businesses.
Not surprisingly considering the prominent role of the Green Deal at the EU level, the transition to a more sustainable economy will be one of the three main priorities for the upcoming year under the Belgian Presidency of the Benelux. As Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg consider sustainability to be at the core of their unique economic model, the Benelux will this year launch the ‘Benelux Green Deal’. With the Benelux aiming to inspire the EU in implementing the Green Deal through the introduction of cross-border pilot projects in the field of energy and sustainable mobility, Dr2 Consultants will explore in this article to what extent the Benelux will be able to lead the way in Europe’s green recovery from COVID-19.
Regional cooperation to pave the way to integrated EU energy market
The Benelux Union Annual Plan 2021 details how the ‘Benelux Green Deal’ should become a model to mimic at EU-wide scale. The plan states that the Benelux countries will seek cooperation in their national energy and climate plans (NCEPs) that lay out an energy transition roadmap towards 2030 as mandated by the EU’s Governance of the Energy Union Regulation. More specifically, the Benelux will explore how the NCEPs can feed into the national COVID-19 recovery plans, which should be submitted to the European Commission by 30 April (some Member States announced delays) and should emphasize green recovery.
The hydrogen market, which has been assigned a central role in the energy transition through the EU Hydrogen Strategy of July last year, is an example of a domain in which the Benelux countries can be a frontrunner. Nowhere else in the EU are countries so physically connected via energy pipelines and is the concentration of energy and carbon-intensive industry so high. Therefore, there are great opportunities in the Benelux to change production processes and energy supply on a relevant scale to decarbonize the energy system.
To exploit the potential and momentum for hydrogen, the Benelux countries signed a ‘Pentalateral’ declaration with Austria, Germany, France and Switzerland in June last year to commit to a joint rollout of hydrogen, with a focus on infrastructure, certification, and common definitions and classification. With the European Commission eyeing an integrated EU energy market through the published EU Energy System Integration Strategy and revision of the TEN-E Regulation, as well as the upcoming revision Renewable Energy Directive II, the Benelux could lead the way in this respect through its planned cooperation in the field of implementing energy integration and offshore renewable energy policies. On top of that, the Benelux countries will strive for a common position for the review of the EU’s Third Energy Package at the end of 2021, in which gaseous energy carriers are expected to become regulated. Together with frontrunner companies the Benelux Union must take the lead and become the starting point of a broader EU rollout.
Subregional integration as blueprint for EU
Without needing the name of ‘enhanced cooperation’ or a ‘multi-speed Europe’, the Benelux Union is acknowledged by the EU treaties as subregional integration, allowing to deepen European integration in some fields. This gives the potential to the three countries to further exploit integration initiatives without ‘competing’ with the EU. On the contrary, as this paragraph shows, the unique position of the Benelux cooperation can serve as a regional blueprint for how a European internal energy market could take shape in the upcoming decades. Investments from the recovery fund into concrete projects for a green recovery could be a start of this deepened Benelux energy cooperation.
Sustainable and smart mobility to connect Benelux border regions
Zero-emission mobility infrastructure
The Benelux Annual Plan also considers sustainable mobility an important element of green recovery, with several sustainable and smart mobility projects connecting the Benelux border regions all the way into North-Rhine Westphalia. These mobility projects could lay the foundation for EU mobility of the future as portrayed in the European Commission’s recently published Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. For example, the Benelux will this year establish a common Benelux-service for the registration of charging point operators for electric vehicles, which fits in the EU’s green ambition to roll out an infrastructure for alternative fuels throughout the EU, amongst others through the upcoming revision of the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive (AFID).
Moreover, the Benelux will act as a living lab for mobility by stimulating cross-border infrastructure for zero-emission trucks such as hydrogen-trucks or e-trucks, by starting a pilot project for cross-border hydrogen vessels, and by facilitating applications of the EU’s Intelligent Transport System (ITS) through cross-border smart shipping projects on the inland waterways of the Benelux. In this regard, the Benelux Union could push for more legislative harmonization and become an example of legislative best practice. Involvement in this early stage of policy formulation can offer ample opportunity for companies.
Mobility as a Service
Apart from these green mobility projects, the Benelux can more indirectly contribute to sustainable and smart mobility through multimodality projects such as Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), for which the Benelux envisages to be an experimental hub through simulations of the MaaS ecosystem, testing appropriate language, standards, data exchange and payment applications. These cross-border simulations can be a lesson for the EU on how cooperation between transport operators and appropriate policies can ensure MaaS’ rollout throughout the EU, as envisioned in the Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy.
Vision of Dr2 Consultants
At Dr2 Consultants we welcome the ambitious plans of the Benelux Union as we have endeavored in recent years to support businesses in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg to become European frontrunners in the fields of sustainability and mobility. We believe that the above-mentioned examples of Benelux projects in the field of energy and sustainable mobility do not necessarily display a higher level of ambition than other EU countries, but the Benelux can, through its regional and cross-border cooperation, effectively showcase how the extremely high European climate ambitions can be effectively implemented in the green recovery of the economy. This makes the Benelux a testing ground for EU policy in the area of sustainability, which can certainly serve as an important steppingstone for an EU-wide implementation of the ambitions from the European Green Deal in the upcoming decades.
If your organization would like to explore what opportunities regional and cross-border cooperation within the Benelux could offer, feel free to contact Dr2 Consultants for advice or visit our Belgian Public Affairs webpage to learn more.