Changing Dynamics of European Leadership and Climate Change

Saving the day for the European Union may not entirely depend on the leadership of French President Emmanuel Macron, but I join many others who were encouraged by the overall election results for the European Parliament in May as the opening of a new approach to a vibrant European Union. The results do mean that President Macron could be the catalyst for a new pro-European coalition with a more progressive strategy for the EU’s future on certain key issues. The focus in this commentary is on a post-election assessment of the potential for a new approach within the EU. My personal interest in this potential is not only driven by hopefulness for a vibrant European Union but also and especially because of the ramifications of EU leadership for broader global collaboration on issues of shared common concern for the global community. In this particular commentary, I concentrate on the particular issue of climate change. It is the leading issue among many where the disregard for global dialogue under the Trump administration has been especially disconcerting. And thus, EU leadership is ever more pivotal for identifying the realistic parameters of collaborative global action.

European Parliamentary Election Results

Looking at the election results, one can see that all of the opinion polls were fairly accurate in their predictions for a redistribution of voting strength:

  • a decline both in the main center-right grouping (European People’s Party or EPP) and in the center-left grouping (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats or S&D) that have dominated EU leadership and policy in the past;
  • an upsurge of support among populist groupings (loosely aligned in two groups –  those advocating withdrawal from the EU and those promoting populist and nationalist policies within the EU); and
  • another less pronounced upsurge in the more centrist grouping (traditionally described as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) but now with the new name of “Reform Europe” for the broadened center to accommodate the Macron party’s request to avoid any reference to “liberal”).

The most worrisome projection had been the anticipated expansion of voter support for populist parties that are essentially anti-EU, or at least against everything that has been part of the unifying policy role of the EU for the continent. And while the numbers did go up for these populist parties, they did not do quite as well as many had feared, and they do remain a distinct and somewhat divided minority in the European Parliament – which, fortunately, continues to be dominated by pro-EU political groupings. The pro-EU groupings, however, have undergone a significant redistribution even as the main center-left and center-right groupings have lost majority control. So a new centrist grouping has gained negotiating strength even as it remains smaller than either of these traditional pro-EU groupings of center-right and center-left.

What was perhaps a bit more surprising was the jump in the results for the parties associated with The Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA), which went from 50 seats to 74 seats in the European Parliament, with especially strong showings in France and Germany. So one of the “takeaways” from the election results is that environmental issues are playing a more significant role in EU policy deliberations. This is a good sign, although it is not yet certain that the positions taken by the Greens and their allies will actually move into the mainstream of EU policy.  After all, they are still a smaller group than even the new center. And in any case, one can argue that their platform should be more effective in adding pressure on the other groupings to come up with pragmatic and incremental solutions rather than in their prospects for actual governing at the EU level.

Leadership Maneuvering

Meanwhile, the focus now seems to be on the selection of new EU leadership, with a balancing act under way to determine who will be chosen to head the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament – in addition, it seems, to at least two other key slots – the head of the European Central Bank and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Commission, it will be recalled, is seen to be the biggest plum since the President of the Commission gets to control the development of legislative proposals. The European Council, however, also has its President, who presides over the regular gatherings of the 28 (or 27 without the UK) heads of state who make up the national memberships of the EU. So that, too, will be important. And the European Parliament has grown in its EU-governing role and could actually benefit from the changing electoral patterns to become an even more influential institution. The other positions, though, have also been growing in importance, and the maneuvering for who will have support for which position among these five is expected to take several months.

Transfer of the leadership from existing occupants is due for the most important to occur on 31 October, although the European Parliament is supposed to choose its new head in early July. Although it may well be a drawn-out process over the coming months, there has been one summit on 20 to 21 June that had the selection process on its agenda but did not produce a consensus. A newly scheduled second summit that could conceivably result in a “deal” was set for 29 June. I think we can all agree that this is highly unlikely and that maneuvering will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

The Politics of Climate Change in Europe

Leadership maneuvering notwithstanding, the European Union does have a new ecologically leaning momentum that is crucial for achieving the ambitious targets of climate change that were envisioned in the Paris Climate Agreement. The EU may well have been in the forefront of commitments already, but even there the commitments were not on track to reach the Paris Agreement targets. And the backtracking in the US position has only made it more urgent for the EU to step forward. A new and transformative centrist platform with French leadership is clearly the more promising option for a strengthened EU leadership role, rather than a reconstituted center-right/center-left political alignment of the recent past, but the main point in all of this is that inclusive change is what we should all be supporting.

The new EU strategic agenda for the next five years does show that the issue of climate change has been elevated to become one of the top five priorities for the 2019 to 2024 EU planning cycle. In large part, this reflects the impact of the Friday for Future student strikes around the world inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the growing involvement generally of younger voters in the environmental parties. It is true that President Macron and his allies did make a concerted effort to get the EU to adopt a commitment of zero-carbon neutrality by 2050, something which the EU has not yet done. But under existing EU procedural rules, such a commitment could only be approved by consensus among all 28 member States. At least three East European members blocked this agreement – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The failure to get a consensus was seen by many, even in the mainstream media, as a setback.

One can sympathize with this lament, since implementation of the Paris Agreement clearly needs the EU’s leadership. As we have previously noted, none of the world’s national commitments that have officially been announced under the Paris Agreement will enable the world to achieve the established target of limiting global climate warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. And we can appreciate that the UN Secretary-General, who had thrown his weight behind an additional high-level summit at the UN this coming September to help spur the momentum for more ambitious commitments, had depended on the EU taking this sort of next step in order to get others to do the same.

Three Challenges for Building on the Momentum

What we see is that even within the EU there are challenges to address more than the obvious environmental initiatives that are needed to bring climate change under control. Environmental groups, however, have historically tended to be purists about the environment, with insufficient regard for the social and economic effects of environmental transformation. The challenge for all parties, including the EU and its member states, is to build the momentum for major policy changes in the social, economic and cultural domains as well as the environmental domain. This is what one sees in the broader EU agenda, for example, and also in the array of policy changes that have been associated with advocates of a “Green New Deal” both in Europe and in the US (and elsewhere, of course).

Looking more closely at the idea of a “Green New Deal” from this multi-sectoral perspective one has to embrace three key messages. First, as we have repeated in past commentaries, existing national commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement are nowhere near the reduction levels that are needed to achieve the Agreement’s targets, whether one focuses on the original target of controlling GHGs for a global increase of no more than 2 degrees celsius by 2100 or the updated target of no more than 1.5 degrees celsius.  So more aggressive commitments are needed, and so far this has produced little more than a lot of hand-wringing that we are way behind in controlling the consumption trends that are needed to avoid catastrophe.

The second point is that most of the scenarios for achieving the targets involve such dramatic changes in lifestyles that no government is prepared to embrace the policies that are needed to reduce the growth in GHG emissions by governmental fiat. It means that lifestyle changes through technological change and tradeoffs do need to be addressed – in areas like sustainable livelihoods through specifically targeted job creation strategies to replace job losses in an increasingly green economy. Mobilizing targeted financial resources to finance transitional costs is obviously essential, but they also need to be specifically focused on human impact. It’s not only the matter of getting everyone to change energy consumption patterns in their daily lives, but it is a matter of ensuring that jobs are there for people to have sustainable livelihoods based on being Green.

The third point is that eliminating sources of energy associated with greenhouse gas emissions and replacing all of them with energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases is an extreme and unrealistic position. The fossil fuel industry will continue to be a productive energy source even if the EU were to ban all reliance on fossil fuels by a certain target date. The American version of the Green New Deal proposes a ten-year mobilization to reach zero net carbon emissions. The European Greens are more phased in their approach – advocating an end to any reliance on coal by 2030 but simply ending fossil fuel or nuclear subsidies now but without suggesting an end to reliance on oil or natural gas or nuclear power in any immediately foreseeable future – other than incorporating these sources into a zero net emissions target by 2050.   In both cases, though, the point is that changes are to be made “as much as technologically feasible” without specifying an end to any of these polluting sources of energy.  And what is clear from the 20 June summit is that technological feasiblity also depends on redistribution of resources to accommodate a wide range of national capacities to make the transitions to clean energy.

What these three points suggest is that the EU is well positioned to embrace more ambitious targets, including the zero-emissions target by 2050, in order to inspire the rest of the world to follow suit. The European Council is supposed to continue debating this idea in October, with the optimistic prediction that those East European states will be persuaded with more specific financial commitments. However, sustainable livelihoods and indeed all of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 agenda are essential elements of any climate-change strategy. These are more than just hopeful spillover benefits of technological updating but rather conscious policies to emphasize things like job creation and sustainable lifestyles as part of the climate-change strategy. Given this multi-sectoral perspective, it is no surprise that the ecological approach to end dependence on fossil fuels necessarily incorporates minimum wages and guaranteed job creation as part of the overall strategy.

Finally, there is the matter of continued reliance on coal and other fossil fuels in other parts of the world (not just Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic) that will not change overnight. One might see partnering activities, as illustrated by the Franco-Indian partnership for developing solar power, but the key point is that these traditional energy sources will not disappear. It is better to incorporate things like carbon recapture and storage strategies as part of the overall mix rather than simply expecting the obvious availability of coal and natural gas and oil to simply be closed down.

Looking Forward to a Green New Deal

It is encouraging that both in the EU and in the US there are more and more supporters for the vision of a Green New Deal even where the adaptation and mitigation strategies might not be enough to reach the GHG reduction targets. What matters is to reconfigure the public policies on energy, infrastructure, housing, industrial development, health and agriculture to move toward a cleaner environment – and to be proactive and inclusive on job creation, sustainable income sources and educational/skills learning to ensure livelihoods as well as public support for the lifestyle changes that we all need to embrace.

A new centrist alignment of interests can help achieve this broad and inter-related agenda for climate change and a just transition. It can, to be sure, include the many other environmental concerns of combating air pollution, protecting biodiversity, cleaning up the world’s oceans, and shifting sustainable consumption and production of food and other necessities to more locally oriented systems.  But all of these require a combination of appreciation for the environmental benefits of action with the socially constructive benefits of livelihoods oriented to the new circumstances.  New innovations are definitely needed to supplement the known strategies for combatting climate change and other environmental crises. But we all know that this combination of new and old strategies is dependent on popular support and sustainability.  So as long as the public policy tools shift to support a multi-sectoral “Green New Deal”, I am confident that we can rely on human ingenuity and discovery to move in the right direction.

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