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Climate Leadership and Euroscepticism: The EU’s Climate Policy Dilemma

Published 22 Jun 2019
Alex McManis

On the 12th June, in the ever-present shadow of Brexit, Theresa May made her final major policy announcement as Prime Minister. She announced that the UK will legislate to bring about net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the UK will be the first G7 nation to legislate for net-zero emissions, the idea is hardly new in Europe. Last year 13 EU climate ministers released a statement calling on the European Commission to include a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 in the EU’s 2050 climate plan. The European Parliament also voted in favour of 55% greenhouse gas emissions cuts by 2030, up from the 40% cuts the EU committed at the 2015 Paris climate conference.

The EU has long considered itself a climate leader. After President George W. Bush confirmed the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the EU made it its mission to bring the agreement into force. Its negotiations with Russia, and the EU’s heavy unilateral greenhouse gas emissions cuts, were crucial to bringing the protocol into force.

However, the EU’s climate leadership credentials took an enormous hit at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference because it was not able to influence the outcome of the conference. The EU went into the conference with lofty ambitions but became isolated from the major players, particularly China, the U.S. and India. The final text of the Copenhagen agreement was negotiated behind closed doors between 25 world leaders, without any EU representative present.

The Paris Agreement, while widely praised for being a more ambitious climate agreement, did not entirely recuperate the EU’s leadership reputation. The Paris Agreement fell short of the EU’s initial desires of locking all countries to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets within the Agreement. It instead lets countries set their own nationally determined commitments, many of which are not sufficient to avoid catastrophic global warming of 2℃.

Now President Trump has started to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the rhetoric of EU climate leadership has reared its head again. Finland, which holds the EU Presidency in the second half of 2019, wants the EU to sign off on slashing greenhouse gas emissions later this year. Meanwhile a leaked draft of the EU’s 2019-2024 strategic plan, made public by EURACTIV, argues “the EU can and must lead the way, by engaging in an in-depth transformation of its own economy and society to achieve carbon neutrality.” However, it will not be so easy for the EU to play the role of climate saviour this time around.

Between 2001 and 2009 there were two important and interrelated arguments used in EU circles in favour of the EU’s ambitious climate actions. Climate action was seen as a way to show the value of EU integration, and project a distinct European identity on the international stage. This time the integration project faces more fundamental challenges, and it is just these sort of claims of “European values” and “global leadership” that are being criticised across Europe.

The French “Yellow Vest” protestors are perhaps the best example of this. The protests broke out after President Macron announced an increase in fuel taxes as part of a border plan to decarbonise the French economy. Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times’ Berlin Bureau-Chief, told the Daily Podcast “there was a sense [amongst the protesters] that the President was putting these lofty, globalist ideas and European values ahead of regular French people.”

Moreover the recent EU elections sent mixed messages about voters’ concerns about environmental issues. The Green-European Free Alliance coalition picked up 75 seats in the election, up 25 on the 2014 election. However, these gains were largely confined to Western Europe. The Greens gained 10 seats in Germany, largely due to anger at the centre-left Social Democrats. In the UK, which is due to leave the EU on 31st October this year, the Greens added 5 seats. In France, where the two Green parties have distanced themselves from Macron’s initiatives, they also gained 5 seats. However, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National won the most seats in France (22), arguably in part due to the backlash against Macron’s grand visions. Perhaps more significantly though, Green parities made almost no gains in Eastern European member states, whose votes climate action proponents will need in the Council of the European Union. For national leaders trying to read the prevailing political wins, the EU elections provide no clear guidance.

The fact is that Macron and other European leaders have a problem. If they want the EU to continue to be a climate leader they need to sell their vision to workers who are disillusioned with the European project, and will bear the brunt of job losses in an economic transition. That will not be an easy task.

Alex McManis is currently undertaking an honours year for his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, majoring in Government and International Relations, and History. His thesis will focus on global environmental politics, particularly what influences states to take action on climate change. Alex previously interned at Ports Australia, the peak body representing the Australian ports sector, and was a pro-bono consultant for a Sydney tech start-up. In his spare time he is a passionate debater and has competed at the Australian Debating Championships, where he was an Octo-Finalist, and has judged at the Australasian and Australian British Parliamentary Debating Championships. Alex’s research interests include environmental politics, particularly global climate politics, democratisation and US politics.

Alex is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.