Cultivating enlargement: How a green win in the European Parliament election could help the Western Balkans

The EU’s green agenda is threatened by a predicted surge to the far-right in the upcoming European Parliament election. Against this, mainstream candidates should remind voters that climate policy is not only necessary for decarbonisation, but an essential tool for EU enlargement

Belgian farmers stage a protest in Brussels, Belgium, February 26, 2024
Image by picture alliance / Anadolu | Mohammed Hammou

Despite the European public’s overwhelming support for climate action, the European Union’s ambitious policies, such as the European Green Deal, face an uncertain future. In the upcoming European Parliament election in June, ECFR polling projects that the EU’s green agenda could be watered-down by swing to the far-right. If mainstream candidates do not promote climate policies correctly in their campaigns, voters are likely to deem other issues, such as cost of living, more important and the ‘greenlash’ against the EU’s expensive decarbonisation policies will only gain more traction.

The consequences of a potential weakening in green policy stretch beyond the EU itself – it also risks sending the wrong signals to prospective member states such as those in the Western Balkans. Firstly, it could jeopardise the funding of the New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, which encourages the region to propose their own green projects in order to attract funding. If the European parliament began to consider this a low priority, funds will likely be reallocated to other areas. Secondly, not pushing for green policies within the EU may discourage Western Balkan politicians to pursue green reforms and investment domestically, if it appears that such changes no longer matter to the EU.

Despite these risks, right-wing populist candidates in several member states have claimed that the costs of implementing green polices can be too high for their countries, and the EU as a whole. In this context, funding the European Green Deal in the next parliament while also being asked to fund non-EU neighbours and the war in Ukraine is presented by many politicians on the right as too much to handle.

In months before the election, mainstream candidates should fight these narratives by reframing the EU’s climate agenda as beneficial for both member states and aspiring. In this sense, the green agenda is not only necessary for sustainable economic growth, but an essential foreign policy tool. These candidates should convince voters that paralleled progress on climate policies by prospective and current EU members states alike can help achieve the major goal of a common European future. The green agenda should be communicated as necessary for better cooperation with Western Balkan governments and businesses – paving the way for integration – as well as an opportunity for increased trade, not an obstacle.

Paralleled progress on climate policies by prospective and current EU members states alike can help achieve the major goal of a common European future

To this end, mainstream candidates should reassert that they will push for more commitment on climate policies in the next parliament, in part, to deepen cooperation with prospective member states. A better integrated and comprehensive packaging of the European Green Deal, together with continued support for the New Growth Plan and funding for the green agenda in the Western Balkans would help maintain the EU’s role as a credible player in the region while helping lower emissions. Moreover, this greater commitment could also echo in Western Balkan governments’ climate agendas, which currently lag behind their EU neighbours: If Brussels continues to focus on the necessity for green reform, particularly if it is linked to funding, it may help the region view these reforms more favourably.

At the same time, mainstream candidates could address concerns over cost by packaging the implementation of policies such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism as an economic growth tool. Policies such as this would significantly regulate carbon pricing in each Western Balkan state and help regional products and businesses reach EU standards in the field. And for the EU, progress towards the green agenda’s objectives combined with the implementation of such policies leads to more trade between the Western Balkans and member states, stimulating economic growth.

Moreover, the election runners who support climate policies should argue that the costs of not sticking to green transition objectives can be higher in the long term. European voters and Western Balkan populations should be made aware that decarbonisation is crucial and the only way towards a sustainable future. Abandoning major green policies and objectives within the EU and in the Western Balkans would not only cause further environmental damage but an upsurge of energy dependency on third actors. Lastly, it would dampen the political will to decarbonise in the Western Balkans, which is already present in some candidate countries such as Serbia.

To successfully tackle the ‘greenlash’, alongside presenting climate policy as key to the EU’s enlargement project, mainstream candidates will also need to address domestic concerns. Backlashes such as the recent farmers protests are an urgent call for the EU to design – and effectively communicate – green policies that are fair and keep those whose jobs will be impacted by the transition front and centre of their policymaking. Such objectives can reassure European voters that their needs will be met. At the same time, to maintain the EU’s credibility as a reliable partner and encourage a green transition in the Western Balkans, the EU should include local communities and workers who are most affected by the green transition in the next wave of green investment in the region. In doing so, the EU must be able to conduct proper research and converse with relevant local experts, such as energy analysts, local consultants, NGOs, and public administration to identify where projects are most needed while also allocating funding for their development more efficiently.

Maintaining support for the green agenda in the European Parliament will be a challenge for mainstream politicians if there is a far-right turn at the ballot box in June. To increase their chances, candidates who support climate action must fully utilise the enlargement momentum. They should present climate objectives as a necessary condition for prospective members to integrate closer to the EU market by speeding-up their green transition, alongside its economic and green benefits.

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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