Abstract As part of its efforts to increase the use of renewable energy in Europe, a Directive regarding renewable electricity was agreed by the European Union in 2001. The purpose of this article is to examine this Directive, examining how the discussions surrounding its content unfolded. The investigation focuses upon three contentious issues that were debated during the Directive's development: the definition of ‘renewable’, the national targets for renewable electricity (their levels, as well as whether they should be ‘binding’ or ‘indicative’) and the questions associated with harmonisation (whether one Union-wide ‘support scheme’ for renewable electricity should be in place, and, if so, what it should be). During the 5 years that the Directive was negotiated, many intra-Union conflicts were eventually resolved, at least temporarily, by compromises. Nevertheless, some difficult decisions regarding the promotion of renewable electricity in the European Union still have to be taken.