Against a background of heightening geopolitical instability and economic uncertainty, the path ahead for Europe looks far from smooth. Green MEP Ernest Urtasun and co-leader of Latvia’s Progresīvie Antoņina Ņenaševa discuss how Europe will need to make decisive choices. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a stark illustration of what is at stake. To ensure we choose the road that leads to a better quality of life, stronger democracy, and solidarity across borders, Green and progressive forces will have to provide both immediate solutions and a vision for a sustainable and just future.

Green European Journal: The world finds itself in a state of multiple crises from the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis to the economic downturn and the environmental disasters occurring around the world. In this “polycrisis”, it sometimes feels as if we are reduced to spectators rather than actors who can shape events. How can we seize this moment to achieve social and political change?

Ernest Urtasun: We are indeed in a moment of huge change that creates many uncertainties. It is important to be able to convince citizens that we can shape this moment and move towards a progressive agenda. This task can only be achieved at the European level. There are two areas in particular where Europe needs to show leadership and deliver. First, the world is entering a very dangerous era, in which the rules-based order created at the end of the Second World War is at stake. The United Nations is extremely weakened and the long-term consequence of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be to challenge that rules-based order even further. At the same time, authoritarian regimes everywhere are growing stronger – this is seen most clearly in a strong China and an extremely aggressive Russia. The rules-based order needs to be protected more than ever. The second area where we need to deliver is climate action. Climate change is a source of massive uncertainty for many citizens and Europe needs to respond quickly, coherently, and efficiently.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: Focusing on multiple problems simultaneously is not easy. We are human beings and multitasking is not our most natural condition. We are much more comfortable pinpointing one problem and dealing with it. Over the past 20 years, the increased flow of information has also contributed to a sense of global interdependency. So we now feel that a crisis somewhere else in the world is also our crisis. That is why there is this feeling of uncertainty that affects politics as well as everyone as individuals. What can we do in this situation? I think that we need a clear agenda for the short-term centred on responding to the needs of citizens through income support and global coordination to avoid a generalised crisis. Whereas in the long term, governments need to come up with viable strategies that can tackle our interconnected problems. The Greens are well positioned here because the movement has always connected the fight for the climate to social justice and the struggle for human rights worldwide.

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The rising cost of living is forcing many people into poverty and squeezing the household budgets of much of the middle class. What political risks are coming down the line from declining living standards?

Antoņina Ņenaševa: Inflation is now above 20 per cent in Latvia. For some products, prices have risen by 50 per cent or more. It is a huge increase and it’s very visible: you see and feel it every day in the grocery store. People are feeling the effects and the crisis is very worrying, even if energy prices have not stayed as high as they were and the alarmist political forces who said that Europe was not going to survive the winter appear to be mistaken.

To address the cost of living crisis, global and European coordination is essential. First, countries need to provide relief to low- and medium-income households because for many this crisis is a question of survival. In the long term, Latvia like all European countries needs to be investing in renewables and renovation. The poor condition of our building stock is a huge problem for us as a post-Communist country with many badly insulated apartments and harsh weather conditions. Without renovation, all our energy is essentially spent on heating the streets. The same goes for our public transport system; this crisis is showing why an environmentally sustainable public transit system is both a short-term and a long-term priority. But to maintain the public investment that we need while avoiding currency difficulties, we need that global cooperation.

Ernest Urtasun: Inflation is a phenomenon that throughout history leads to the defeat of governments. It could yet have a terrible impact on our political systems. If you look at the elections since inflation became a problem in Europe, every time a country goes to the polls, the sitting government loses. That is why we need the European Union to develop what I would call a “social shield” that can protect the most vulnerable in society.

In general, we are in the middle of an economic shift. This crisis, along with the two previous ones – in 2008 and the pandemic – have made it clear that leaving everything in the hands of the free market was a bad idea. After years of failed neoliberal policies, the only way to keep our welfare systems functioning and protect our democracies is by massively reinforcing public services and social protections while making sure that the costs of inflation are fairly distributed. The Greens in the European Parliament are calling for windfall taxes on the corporations that have profited in the past year, banning evictions to protect those most in need, and guaranteeing that basic goods on shelves remain affordable. The European Union has taken some positive steps, the windfall tax on energy firms for example, but the progress is very slow on reforming the electricity market, which is the root of Europe’s current problems, as some European governments are dragging their feet.

Our environmental programme is a solution for many of our great societal ills.

Antoņina Ņenaševa

Antoņina Ņenaševa: I agree with what has been said about the political implications of inflation. In the Latvian elections in October, the consequences were clear: two-thirds of the seats went to MPs who had never been elected before and four out of the seven parties in Parliament are new. While part of this development is positive, as the progressive green vision is now finally represented in Parliament, we have also seen the comeback of oligarchs and their shady businesses, as well as wins for other radicals

In Latvia, it feels as if the 1990s are back – which is no good thing. Of course, Latvia gained its independence and built its democracy in the ’90s, but they were also years with many dark sides: a growing shadow economy and powerful players bending the rules. I would like to say that Green and social democratic parties can make progress at the current moment but the political reality is that it is radical and populist forces who benefit most. For the rule of law, it is a major concern.

How can Greens become the political force to whom struggling citizens turn in a moment of crisis?

Ernest Urtasun: I think that we can be the force that provides certainty and optimism to the people if we continue to offer a social and political project for the majority. If we look at recent elections in Italy and Sweden, the main problem was that progressive forces were not capable of offering an attractive societal project. This failure creates space for the far right to step with their societal project. The far right wins by looking to the past and exploiting a sense of nostalgia that can contrast with the uncertainties of the future. This explains Brexit. It explains Trump. And I think it explains Meloni as well. For the Greens, this challenge means looking to the future with optimism, continuing to be ambitious in terms of fighting climate change while strengthening the narrative on social justice.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: The most basic step is talking about the problems and not pretending everything is fine. Many citizens still believe that Green parties are about waste management and nature conservation, so we still have to work on the right narrative that can connect these dots. A crucial and challenging task is also to explain that green solutions are not expensive solutions; that the environmental approach is way cheaper in the long run and will benefit people much more than the status quo.

With the war in Ukraine and the increased focus on our dependence on Russian gas, it should be possible to explain why independence from fossil fuels is crucial for many reasons: to foster social justice, to fight climate change, and to protect human rights. We also need to highlight the need for real energy independence – switching from one dependence to another should not be an option. Not even if it means switching from Russian dependence to American. In the longer term, we need public ownership over strategic sectors such as energy.

Some politicians are reluctant to turn to European solutions because there remains a perceived distance between European countries. The war in Ukraine might feel distant to some; others might think that economic troubles in a different country are not their concern. How can Greens build solidarity across European borders?

Ernest Urtasun: I think it requires a political and cultural change, in the sense that we Europeans need to understand that youth unemployment in Greece is as much a Baltic problem as the threats to the Baltic borders are a Spanish problem. This is the culture that we need to build. And we have progressed on that front: I truly believe that the security concerns that the Baltic countries express are everyone’s concerns at the EU level.

The best way of building a common sense of what one could call the European interest is to constantly try to bring European solutions to different sets of problems. The good news here is that, compared to the Eurozone crisis, the geographical divisions today are much less significant. Previously, some member states were massively affected by the sovereign debt crisis, while others were not. Today, all of Europe faces the problems of a badly designed electricity market, energy shocks, and an unfair tax system. Nevertheless, even though this is not an asymmetric shock, there is still the risk of member states thinking they can play it solo.

Today, there is a major risk of a backlash against the European Green Deal.

Ernest Urtasun

Antoņina Ņenaševa: The war is a huge event that is relevant for all of Europe. For me, this issue is of course very emotional. The war is very close geographically speaking. I have refugees from Ukraine in my home. I have friends and family members who are affected. At the same time, we need to be clear that it is not a unique phenomenon. Europe is facing different kinds of global crises each year, so we will need greater cooperation, strong interdependence with joint policies, and shared responsibilities.

Latvia and the Baltic states have taken on a strong leadership role when it comes to supporting Ukraine. We have emerged as strong geopolitical players that are confronting the vulnerabilities highlighted by Russia’s aggression. What the Baltics have achieved on a regional level is also possible on a pan-European level. After all, preventing war on the European continent and minimising Europe’s vulnerability in the face of global interdependencies are the reasons why the European Union exists.

Many economists are worried that a European and possibly a global recession could be on the way. The European Central Bank and central banks around the world have raised interest rates. Have we learnt the lessons of the previous crisis or do we risk a return to austerity?

Ernest Urtasun: I do not see that risk in the short term. There is a cultural change in economic thought that is weakening the influence of neoliberal ideas in Brussels, the member states, and generally on the international level. The European Union has learned its lesson about austerity. After almost blowing up our common currency, I do not see an immediate return to that idea. But the political battle over the reform of the EU’s fiscal rules has begun and it will have extremely important consequences for the economic policy mix that the members can develop. If the current rules were to be reapplied in 2024, we would indeed enter a new round of austerity everywhere in Europe. However, I do not expect that to happen and I think there will continue to be public support for our economy. At the same time, the decisions of central banks to raise interest rates will make life very difficult for many households and families.

After 2008, the Greens put forward the narrative of the Green New Deal. Ten years on, we can see the influence of that vision. It shaped both the European Green Deal and the Biden agenda even if its social aspects were much diluted. Is there a similarly transformative vision that can answer our current crisis?

Ernest Urtasun: Our Green Deal remains a valid narrative for the coming years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Green Deal always had two legs: the ecological transition of our economy and decarbonisation and a strong social reform of our economy and our welfare systems. After all, there will not be any transition if we do not manage to secure social cohesion. Today, there is a major risk of a backlash against the European Green Deal. At the European level, the European People’s Party is doing its best to water down legislation linked to the Green Deal. Our role as Greens is to argue for both of these aspects, decarbonisation and the construction of a fair society. The Greens will be there to push the European institutions to keep their ambition.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: I agree, we have to reform and strengthen social protection and act as leaders on questions of inequality, combining this with our climate policies and the central place of human rights in our political narrative. This point leads me back to the notion of connecting our key topics, as the problems we face are increasingly interconnected. Climate change is creating ever greater inequalities. Fossil fuel extraction drives many human rights violations. Ukraine’s loss would be a loss for all of Europe. In these ways, our environmental programme is a solution for many of our great societal ills. We need to make this clear to the people with a vision both locally and at the European level. The Russian invasion is so vivid that we have to keep emphasising it in our narratives and explain what a non-democratic, fossil-driven system of governance and society leads to.

More by Antoņina Ņenaševa

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