Skip to content
Department of History

The energy for change

Environmental challenges and geopolitical crises are putting our energy production and consumption in the spotlight. History researcher Maria Sole Barbieri tells us more about her research on European energy strategies after the 1970s oil shock and their relevance for today’s energy policy debates.

13 May 2024 | Research

13.05.2024_no gas 1920x1080

You are working on the French and Italian energy strategies in the aftermath of the oil shock of the 1970s. What were the main characteristics of these strategies?

When I started my research, I wanted to understand what the European Community (EC) did, if the member states had the intention to shape a community energy policy, and I started wondering why in the treaties of the European Union the energy issue is rarely mentioned. Why was a formal community energy policy never created by the European Community member states?

To tackle this question, I realised it was important to first look at the EC members states’ energy strategies. While I was working in different archives, I realised the energy strategies of Italy and France shared similarities, for example a series of projects in the energy realm during the 1960s and 1970s particularly in the nuclear sector, other than similar diplomatic actions towards the producing countries. These strategies had significantly different results in domestic and foreign policies, so I became interested in figuring out the position of France and Italy in energy policymaking in the aftermath of the oil shock.

In terms of foreign policy, both Italy and France had a clear European orientation: the idea was to build stronger cooperation in the European Community to find common solutions for the disproportionate effects of the crisis. The main aim in the aftermath of the oil shock was to find affordable and secure energy supplies which could partially substitute the oil need, but also to reduce its consumption.

France and Italy had a really similar approach in terms of domestic policies: the basic idea was to transition towards nuclear energy, while developing new relationships with producers.

In France, the Messmer plan of 1974 was thought as an ambitious turning point in the French energy policy. As many historians pointed out, the French transitions towards electronuclear energy was possible because there was a strong technical and technological basis, and the process was overall successful.

As in France, in Italy the oil shock increased the popularity of nuclear power. It was thought as an ambitious project to build electronuclear plants in the Italian territory, despite the economic crisis and the financial concerns. The main aim of the plan was to create a comprehensive energy policy, which required the adoption of a series of interlinked measures carried out by different state-owned enterprises.

Differently from French energy policy, the Italian plan was largely ineffective. The immense bureaucracy and the overlap of competences between the different state enterprises slowed down the construction of nuclear power plants.

What role did the European institutions play?

The crisis made the energy issue, and particularly the availability of supplies, the centre of the discussion, and the European Commission called for the need to overcome the political vacuum on the energy realm, and define a common energy policy.

Even if there were an attempt to build a community energy policy and a political will of the member states to look in this direction, I argue that the EC actions resulted in a political failure.

Beside the discussion in the European institutions, a formal community energy policy never saw the light, and it was decided by eight of the nine members of the Community – with French exclusion – to adhere to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in order to manage the effects of the crisis. France opted out for many reasons, but one of them was the French idea to build a more ambitious EC energy policy where security aspects were only part of the larger project and not the main focus of the discussion (as they were in the IEA framework).

Between January 1974 and January 1975, the EC also increased its dynamism in the international arena, and the discussion regarding the energy issue resulted in a series of diplomatic actions towards producers and consumers. One of them, the Euro-Arab Dialogue, is particularly significant since it represented somehow a foreign policy action towards the producers. At the same time, however, this foreign policy action did not result in actual policy at European Community level. The Arab countries were asking for a political positioning of the EC regarding the Palestinian question and the war against Israel, using the tool of energy as leverage. That resulted in a political stalemate which determined the failure of the Dialogue.

Nowadays, energy is still key to geopolitical dynamics, and climate change presses us to rethink our energy production and consumption. In this scenario, do you think there is something we can learn from the 1970s energy policies you are researching on?

The oil shock highlighted the risks of relying on a single energy source. Of course, today we live in a very different world, but we face similar challenges with fossil fuels dominating our energy mix. The diversification of energy supplies and the investments in Research & Development should look towards renewable energy sources, and address urgently and consistently the climate change issue.

The environmental concern was surely present in 1970s discourse, but the European Community was more preoccupied to solve rapidly the crisis rather than invest in what was called ‘alternative energy sources’ (like solar energy). In the immediate aftermath of the shock, the projections on energy plans for the year 2000 considered that ‘alternative energy sources’ would cover only the 1% of the EC energy need. Since the 1970s, there have been significant advancements in energy technologies, particularly in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. These advancements have made renewable energy more economically viable and scalable today than it was during the 1970s, offering greater potential for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

I also think that energy efficiency should be improved across various sectors: it remains crucial today to reduce consumption and mitigate climate change. The energy crises of the 1970s encouraged governments to intervene in energy markets through measures like price controls and fuel rationing. While the specifics may differ, governments today can still play a vital role in shaping energy policies that promote sustainability. This includes setting targets for renewable energy deployment, providing subsidies for clean energy technologies, and implementing carbon pricing mechanisms to internalise the costs of emissions.

The 1970s energy crises showed the interconnectedness of global energy markets and the importance of international cooperation in addressing energy challenges. Today, energy and climate issues require coordinated action at the international level. Collaborating on initiatives such as the Paris Agreement and sharing technological innovations can help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Last update: 13 May 2024

Go back to top of the page