Taking on climate change: The new east-west divide?

The Green New Deal is the incoming European Commission’s lead priority. But it may struggle to battle on so many fronts at once.

In the era of Greta Thunberg, tackling climate change is surely no longer a routine job – if ever it was – for Europe’s leaders. The political guidelines of the incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, make a clear attempt to reflect the times they were issued in. They reference, for example, the Fridays for Future global strike phenomenon. “The message from Europe’s voters – and those too young to vote”, von der Leyen writes, “– is loud and clear: they want real action on climate change and they want Europe to lead the way.” As a result, featuring first in the guidelines is a pledge for a European Green Deal. The political importance of this plan is further found in president-elect’s mission letter to Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president-designate for the European Green Deal. A fuller set of documents on the European Green Deal is to be released within the first 100 days of the new commission taking office.

The European Green Deal sets out a number of ambitious policies: a European climate law to enshrine the goal of climate neutrality by 2050; an increase from 40 percent to 50-55 percent of the 2030 emissions reduction target; a Just Transition Fund to support regions most affected by the new climate policies; a carbon border tax; and a review of the energy taxation directive and major changes in the emissions trading scheme. Some of these will come forward within the 100-day ambition while others will take years, entailing complex design and implementation. As the strong allusion to Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal suggests, the Green New Deal’s provisions extend beyond climate change alone. Now, with a horizon of 2050 and a goal of complete decarbonisation, the new European Commission wants to make the package economically feasible. It envisages an overhaul of industrial policy, making the European Investment Bank a “climate bank”, and launching a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan.

Timmermans is to be tasked with overseeing the implementation of the new plans. As well as ranking second in the commission and heading up the climate action directorate-general, he will also have another five commissioners answering to him. They will cover covering six DGs: health and food safety, agriculture and rural development, mobility and transport, energy, environment, maritime affairs and fisheries. A top Brussels veteran, Timmermans is likely to be effective and committed to the role of pursuing the headline ambition.

But some political and policy aspects will cause him difficulty. Just a couple of months ago, the Visegrad countries shot down his nomination for what is now von der Leyen’s job, due to his insistence on rule of law issues. Poland campaigned strongly against him and happens to be the informal leader of a group of central and eastern European countries that also resist more ambitious climate goals. As recently as June, Poland, supported by Hungary, and the Czech Republic, brought about the rejection of more ambitious and binding goals for a climate-neutral EU by 2050, put forward by the European Commission and supported by a majority of member states, by refusing to back the proposal at a European Council meeting.

This sets the scene for a continued east-west divide over climate action. As a rule, the governments in central and eastern Europe still choose industry and jobs over other considerations; the region remains energy-intensive and protective of its traditional industries. This is generally reflected in public attitudes. A Eurobarometer poll showed that 50 percent of Swedes consider climate change the most important issue facing the world, while only 10 percent of Bulgarians agree; the EU28 average stands at just 23 percent. There is a clearly identifiable geographical pattern, with citizens of countries in north-western Europe much more troubled than those in central and eastern Europe. The longer-term trends show increases in the former region – from 30 percent to 50 percent in Sweden between 2011-2019, for example – but only small changes, or even decreases, in countries that feel less concerned – Bulgaria actually registered a fall, from 15 percent to 10 percent.

But, despite differences between countries and regions, polls also suggest that there is broad recognition of the issue among EU citizens. ECFR/YouGov survey data reveal, for example, that Slovaks agree as strongly as Danes do – 70 percent in each case – that protecting the environment should be a priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. And they would like Europe itself to be leading on this: climate change, and migration, are the two key issues where respondents think there is a clear need for action at the EU level. The new political guidelines promise a European Climate Pact, which may be the sort of policy that voters are looking for, pledging as it does to bring together various actors – regions, local communities, civil society, industry, and schools – to design and commit to a set of pledges on behaviour change to reduce carbon emissions.

The new commission faces a political showdown between Greens and populists

In addition to the east-west divide between member states, the new commission also needs to brace itself for a political showdown. It is likely to find itself caught between two political forces now on the rise. The newly enlarged group of Green MEPs will scrutinise every move and push for faster, more ambitious action. Already in the lead-up to von der Leyen’s confirmation hearing, the liberal, socialist, and Green groups in the European Parliament set a strengthened climate platform as a precondition for her winning their support. But many Greens and environmental activists remain unimpressed, while nationalists and populists believe von der Leyen has made enough compromises on this front already. Populists seem to be adopting more climate-sceptic positions, and they will not pass up an opportunity to rally against the “establishment”. Climate change has already entered the culture wars both in Europe and globally.

Europe’s Green Deal ambitions will have major foreign policy implications too. The new commission dubs itself a “geopolitical commission”. At the same time, it wants Europe to become the “world’s first climate-neutral continent” by 2050. Climate change policy is by definition international. But this aspect evokes a picture of the EU trying to bring figures such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping along with it (though India and China in particular have been more forthcoming on this agenda in recent years). This will be a major challenge. One of the main criticisms of the EU’s climate policy is that the absence of similar commitment from other global powers renders its efforts futile and puts EU economies at disadvantage. The new commission has a novel plan for this, but it brings its own set of problems.

Von der Leyen intends to introduce a carbon border tax with the goal of preventing ‘carbon leakage’, i.e.  the relocation of carbon-intensive production to countries outside the EU that are not bound by strict European rules. The EU plans to ensure the new tax complies with World Trade Organization rules, but this will surely be a long and arduous process entailing frictions with all other major powers, all while trade wars are already ongoing. The carbon border tax may alleviate criticism of the European Green Deal as a threat to Europe’s industry, but the commission will still have to win round member states and industry. Furthermore, von der Leyen plans to extend the emissions trading system to cover the maritime sector, and to reduce, over time, the free allowances allocated to airlines.

As ambitions grow, the challenges to the Green Deal will be as broad and ambitious as it gets – the east-west divide on climate action; a public concerned about jobs; populists eager to exploit yet another issue; scrutiny by an empowered European Parliament; the need to convince European industry and trade – and the prospect of doing all this while navigating a complex geopolitical environment. But if the new European Commission is to attain the high ambitions it has set itself, it will have no choice but to work on all these fronts at once.

Marin Lessenki is a European policy analyst

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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