Commission President Ursula von der Leyen grabbed the Continent’s attention with Wednesday’s announcement of her Green New Deal program that aims to turn the EU climate neutral by mid-century.
The honeymoon could last less than a day.
Just hours after her lofty speech calling her program Europe’s “man on the moon moment,” political reality will return to Brussels when the leaders of 27 member countries show up for a two-day summit and scrap over whether to agree on a goal of zero net emissions by 2050.
The omens aren’t great. Leaders failed to agree on that target in June thanks to resistance from Central Europeans worried about the economic costs of such a pledge, and the defiance hasn’t died. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have no plans to shift positions unless they get massive dollops of EU cash to take the sting out of decarbonizing their coal-dependent economies.
“Poland is determined to find an agreement, but at the moment we don’t have it — not in the way we’d like,” Konrad Szymański, Poland’s Europe minister, said earlier this week.
Council President Charles Michel and his team were scrambling Wednesday in an effort to rewrite the Council’s draft conclusions in order to win unanimous endorsement of the proposal, but it was unclear that changes to the text alone would be sufficient. Poland feels that what’s in the conclusions is “insufficient,” said an EU diplomat.
Szymański insisted that the conclusions include ironclad guarantees that climate policies won’t hurt the Polish economy, which gets about 80 percent of its electricity from coal. “Without such hard promises, there will be no agreement,” he warned.
Show us the money
Countries vulnerable to economic damage from climate policies are looking for financial guarantees that Brussels cannot provide because the bloc hasn’t yet finalized its next seven-year budget. The Central Europeans are very suspicious that the promises of generous funding will simply move existing cash around; they want new money, and lots of it.
Brass-knuckle politics also derailed another climate initiative on Wednesday, when a group of countries that use or want to use nuclear power scuttled a tentative deal on setting rules for green investments, concerned that the so-called taxonomy would exclude financing for nuclear projects.
But von der Leyen — a conservative German Christian Democrat — isn’t being soft-hearted in becoming an apostle for tackling climate change.
Europe has been rocked by climate protests, as increasingly grim scientific reports make clear that something is going deeply awry with the world’s weather.
The Green Deal is a response to those pressures, and represents a turning point among big nations. It stands to shift the clamor for urgent action off the streets, where hundreds of thousands of young people have vented their anger and frustration in recent months, and into the buildings where laws and regulations get made: the directorates general of the Commission, the summit room of the Council, and the committee rooms of the European Parliament.
A senior EU official, pressed on the disagreements about the proposed 2050 target, said leaders should use their ears and hear the political music: “One of the elements that the heads of state and government will have to take into account is the pressure outside the room on this.”
As a result, von der Leyen has staked her credibility as Commission president and the bloc’s international reputation on her program which aims to revamp almost every aspect of life — from global trading relationships, to farm policy, which cars drive on European roads, how power is generated, how phones and computers are designed and how offices and homes are built.
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“The old growth-model based on fossil-fuels and pollution is out of date, out of time and out of touch with our planet,” von der Leyen said. “We want to be the first to overcome these limits. The first to really do things differently. The first-movers in industry, innovation and clean investment.”
EU sets the rules
The push by the EU is hardly just altruistic. In an era of big-power competition, especially with China and the U.S., the EU is hoping that being in the vanguard on the climate fight will solidify Brussels as the premier international “rule-maker” and champion of a new multilateral, rules-based order.
And beyond geopolitical supremacy, vast sums of money stand to be won or lost in the global industrial race to go green — whether in renewable energy, or the manufacture of electric cars and next-generation batteries.
“Those who act first and fastest will be the ones who grasp the opportunities from the ecological transition,” von der Leyen wrote in her program. “I want Europe to be the front-runner.”
At the same time, von der Leyen seemed to acknowledge that the Green Deal could prove to be a political suicide mission, as it will inevitably require policymakers to choose winners and losers — to disrupt if not kill entire industries, to put untold numbers of people out of work, and to generally risk infuriating voters by forcing them to change how they live in all sorts of ways, faster than anyone ever expected.
Von der Leyen insisted that the EU would act carefully and soften the blow where needed. “I want to be very clear: this transition will be just for all, or it will not work at all,” she said. “A crucial part of our plan is the Just Transition Mechanism. We have the ambition to mobilize €100 billion in investment for the most vulnerable sectors and regions.”
But as Prague, Budapest and Warsaw fear, it’s far from clear that EU members are ready to commit the large sums that will be needed, especially at a time when the bloc’s budget is under pressure because of Brexit and many national economies are facing the risk of an economic slowdown.
The Green Deal’s first brush with reality came in the European Parliament on Wednesday. While many MEPs were supportive, there were already some skeptical voices.
Silvia Sardone, an Italian MEP from the far-right Identity and Democracy group, called the Green Deal “a book of dreams.”
“I understand that the Commission needs to have an image that is in fashion because it’s not that you are really loved,” Sardone said. “But I don’t think shooting slogans is the right thing to do.”
For many constituents, the Green Deal may quickly prove too much. For the most ardent environmental advocates, it is already seen as too little. The EU’s plans are all well and good, but they want Europe and the rest of the world to adopt more ambitious emissions targets, on a much more aggressive time-frame.
Long disappointed by people in power, these activists will be looking for proof that the European Green Deal was not just some snappy way for von der Leyen to get herself confirmed as European Commission president, but a real package of policy prescriptions intended to help save the Earth from disaster.
Maïa de la Baume and Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.
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