Faced with the colossal challenge of the climate emergency, the leading figures of the European Union are saying all the right things. But the voices across the world calling with increasing volume for change will only be satisfied by real action. With the United States flip-flopping on its commitments and China showing disregard for democratic principles, the EU has an opportunity to show real leadership on climate and environmental issues. Such a stance could imbue the EU and its institutions with renewed momentum and legitimacy, both at home and abroad.

When Ursula von der Leyen staked her claim to becoming the next head of the European Commission, addressing the European Parliament in July 2019, she put the Green Deal at the heart of her vision. It was an idée-force, a central pivot. The concept broke with the spectre of austerity policies and acknowledged the strong Green results at the May 2019 European elections. It also opened up the political game. In the European Parliament, the Green Deal had long been supported by Green MEPs, particularly the German Greens. It was even more popular on the Left in Europe (through DiEM25’s Green New Deal for Europe manifesto, for example) and in the United States, championed among the Democrats by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The European Green Deal combined international ambition, the transformation of European societies and economies, and a unifying project. Indeed, von der Leyen herself emphasised that the coming period would be marked by profound geopolitical changes linked to ecology and digital technology.

Two years on, the Green Deal is the keystone of the Commission’s programme. It commits to a carbon tax at Europe’s borders; a veto on trade agreements with countries that do not respect the Paris Agreement; transition funds worth 100 billion euros for coal-dependent regions; a rail plan to provide alternatives to flying; strengthened environmental standards; the transformation of the agricultural model; and an end to fossil fuel investment by the European Investment Bank, which promises to devote 50 per cent of its financing to climate projects by 2025. The Commission has stayed the course despite the pandemic, publishing ambitious proposals for a new Farm to Fork food strategy and plans for a circular economy in 2020. In July 2021, it released its Fit for 55 climate package including 12 legislative proposals and policy initiatives. It aims to adopt EU policies to reduce net emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 and make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

The intention is clear: for the EU to assume a form of climate leadership by example, to challenge itself internally in order to build influence internationally.

A green power?

At present, no one holds the key to effective and convincing climate diplomacy, either at the multilateral level, or in bilateral or regional relations. The meetings of the United Nations

Conference of the Parties (COP) are essential occasions for negotiation, but they have not produced any binding multilateralism up to the task of tackling the climate emergency. While the Paris Agreement sets the objective of limiting climate change to between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming, the current policies of nation-states tend towards 3 degrees. The drumbeat of warnings from scientists has sharpened the disappointment of citizens, who denounce governments’ cynicism and lack of courage. The Green Climate Fund, formally established at COP16 in Cancún in 2010 to help the most vulnerable countries, is still struggling to reach the agreed amount of 100 billion dollars.

Today, the climate emergency is unfolding in a more unstable world. China and the United States in particular are in a state of “cold peace” and illiberal democracies are flourishing. China is proclaiming its ambition to be a green power while simultaneously stepping up its territorial and economic offensives. The US is seeking to fight the Chinese incursion in the Indo-Pacific region (via the Aukus naval pact with Australia and the UK, for example), while its relations with its European allies are in crisis. Ecological awareness is growing, but the threat of conflict remains, hegemonic ambitions are on full display, and uncertainty prevails. The EU is in a different situation to the US or China, but must still take the international context into account.

To be credible, the EU must resolve the contradictions and tensions between member states that the Green Deal has revealed. 

The debate on European power has returned to the fore with recent shifts in the transatlantic relationship linked to NATO and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The subject is not new. As early as the 1970s, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung spoke of a superpower in the making. Numerous concepts arose to represent a quest for influence that stays true to founding principles such as peace and the promotion of democracy through doux commerce: normative power, civil power, peaceful power, soft power. None were entirely convincing, no doubt due to the absence of a fully developed plan and a lack of political will on the part of the member states. Can the climate emergency create that necessity?

Climate issues escape the classic geopolitical vision as they are inherently borderless, even if people – and, more broadly, living things – are affected differently depending on the societies, location, and ecosystems in which they live. Hence the notion of the “shared but differentiated responsibility” in global climate negotiations. This idea recognises the universal nature of climate disruption as well as the specificities of each country’s history, financial means and power, and geographical and economic situation. From this perspective, the fact that the EU is not a state but rather a community of states – its hybrid nature is somewhere between federal and intergovernmental – can be an asset. For example, the EU is able to mediate between the most vulnerable states and others. After all, it is already engaged in a constant mediation exercise between its members.

But to be credible, the EU must resolve the contradictions and tensions between member states that the Green Deal has revealed. For although the Green Deal raises familiar questions in terms of legal and procedural provisions and the reality of national practices, their scope here is unprecedented. First of all, there is the challenge of converting economies that are heavily dependent on coal such as Czechia, Germany, and Poland. It will also be necessary to break with a certain quid pro quo culture (echoing Margaret Thatcher’s “I want my money back”) in which the interests of the most powerful states and economic actors prevail over a common project. This requires strong and active alliances between the Commission and the European Parliament, but also between the member states that wish to move forward. Such an outcome cannot be taken for granted. Although France has supported the Green Deal from the outset, it has maintained a contradictory position on the Common Agricultural Policy that essentially undermines it.

Beyond the tensions between national interests and the ecological imperative, there is still much work to be done to link the Green Deal to social justice. For example, building a true European rail network means reconciling public investment, competition rules, and national contexts (to prevent the kind of backlash seen in France in spring 2018, when massive strikes broke out in response to a European competition action against regional train lines). Similarly, there is no magic formula for the creation of green jobs, despite considerable optimism. Today’s urgent needs include providing appropriate training for millions of people, setting up a proper industrial ecosystem, relocating certain kinds of production, and rethinking globalisation. From the very start, the green transition must be linked to social priorities to avoid France’s gilets jaunes spreading across Europe.

Is the complexity of relations between states, the diversity of interests among Europe’s cast of actors, an opportunity to assert a form of know-how? Could the European Green Deal be a laboratory for wider climate negotiations? These are central questions. As the difficulties in implementing the Paris Agreement have shown, the main challenge is bringing climate diplomacy down to earth. If we can first believe in it and then actually do it, the EU could provide a promising landing site.

Climate leadership

The European Union’s credibility as an example and mediator on climate issues must also be considered in comparison with the ambitions of other nations. Since the Paris Agreement, China has gradually asserted its climate ambitions with the overt goal of taking advantage of the American withdrawal under Donald Trump. The term “ecological civilisation” even made its way into the Chinese Constitution in 2018. In September 2020, before the United Nations General Assembly, Xi Jinping announced that his country had set two goals: to reach peak CO2 emissions “before 2030” and to achieve carbon neutrality “before 2060”. In 2021, at the same forum, the Chinese president confirmed these choices, this time committing to end financing for new coal-fired power plants abroad. Xi Jinping has presented the transformations linked to the ecological transition as opportunities and not just a crisis or threat. According to Chinese environmental policy expert Coraline Goron, the Chinese government has made the transition “a positive narrative, a key element of the ‘Chinese dream’ and of the ‘new era’ of renewal for the nation”.

It is true that China is still the world’s leading polluter, and that the Chinese state often has difficulty imposing its decisions on the

provinces. But China’s determination to develop renewable energies remains impressive, and it has reaped significant benefits from its exports. The Chinese example is even fuelling questions in Europe about the supposed links between ecological urgency, authoritarianism, and efficiency. Given its desire to interweave a strategy of influence, an economic offensive, and political authoritarianism, China’s commitments cannot escape contradictions of an economic nature (the trade-offs between growth, consumption, and the sober use of energy and resources). But the main question posed by the Chinese model remains that of the disconnection between society and political strategy: how viable is a top-down green transition, deployed at a breakneck pace and in the absence of democratic dialogue?

As for the United States, following Joe Biden’s election, the US immediately sought to rejoin the Paris Agreement and promised to double aid to developing countries to deal with climate change. On the domestic front, the focus is on decarbonising the US economy by linking it to the post-Covid-19 recovery. US commitments will undoubtedly have ripple effects on the commitments of other countries. But the US government’s position seems to be guided mainly by economic considerations: creating jobs in sustainable and renewable energies, reducing the bill for extreme weather events, and competing with China by becoming a leader in new sectors such as electric cars, batteries, and charging stations. Ultimately, given the strength of climate scepticism as represented by Trump, the American position is fragile. What might happen in the event of a future Republican win remains uncertain.

Global calls for change

Internationally, the climate issue is no longer limited to the position of states. More than defence or even foreign policy, climate issues have given rise to the emergence of new forms of democratic remonstrance that resonate on a global scale. A new alter globalisation is afoot, the intensity of which is fed by a sense of urgency and frequent scientific warnings. Youth mobilisations have become a common sight across the world. “System change, not climate change,” chant the demonstrators. Beyond just young people, a real cultural battle is playing out around the climate issue, calling into question growth, productivism, and our understanding of globalisation.

These calls upon states have become impossible to ignore. Increasingly, they include ideas on what public policies or institutions would look like if adapted to the ecological emergency.

The EU could be a mediating institution and set an example through the Green Deal. 

In November 2020, a group of young people from the Fridays for Future movement held a mock COP26. “We’re going to show the world what would happen if we were the decision-makers, and what a COP should look like,” explained an organiser. The meeting resulted in the drafting of a treaty to change public policy. Ramping up pressure on institutions, climate grievances are increasingly heard in courts in both the US and Europe. Such legal action is often welcomed by judges.

The climate emergency is thus creating an unprecedented mix of diplomatic negotiations and democratic mobilisation. Within the institutions themselves, supporters of more radical measures are making their voices heard. Large corporations and governments are challenged, accused of neglecting intergenerational solidarity and the choices that need to be made. In the face of these movements, the EU could once again be a mediating institution and set an example through the Green Deal. Provided, of course, that it remains unified and honours its own climate commitments. The prominent place of law in the challenge to states is reminiscent of the EU’s institutional culture, which closely associates law and politics. For a Europe that is not well-liked by its citizens, this situation is an opportunity to renew its legitimacy.

Unlocking the EU’s potential?

It is striking that, in the matter of a few months, ecology has provided the European Union with the vision and impetus that it had been lacking for some time, both internally and in relation to the rest of the world. At a time when climate protests are taking place from Australia to Sweden to the Americas and are mobilising millions of young people, the Green Deal links institutional ambition with powerful social momentum. The project is not only an economic and social programme; it is a potential locus for democratic aspirations that exist well beyond Europe.

But a project to build European credibility cannot be based solely on the Green Deal. More broadly, Europe must allow itself to have a historical vision and imagine its own future around climate issues. This is a difficult exercise for an EU that was created precisely to turn its back on world wars. The objective of building peace has led it to develop an apolitical narrative to escape the bellicose values that dominate relations of power. But the project of climate leadership calls for Europe to take the risk of entering fully into the world as it is today. The Green Deal can be a means of exerting that leadership, but not an end in itself.

Where consensus is required but difficult to achieve, the European Union has often been fond of fudges that hide disagreements. Legal pathways become the only means to face up to internal conflicts. Averse to division and disagreement, the EU takes refuge behind the unanimity rule, preferring to practise morality and law rather than politics. How then can the concert of European nations play its part in the face of the conflicts inherent to climate issues? Can Europe take all facets of the issue into account – society, migration, economic confrontations, support for the most vulnerable? Undeniably, this presupposes a re-politicisation of Europe and the creation of a dynamic combining efficiency, democracy, and openness towards the world.

Rather than imagining a state that goes beyond states, we should see the European Union as an association of multiple histories, the interweaving of different peoples who agree on a shared idea of the future. This is what the Green Deal can encourage, if it is based on genuine social considerations, and on an engagement with the world that leaves the idea of fortress Europe behind. Paradoxically, because of its reliance on intergovernmental concertation, the EU is an institution that can claim to play a decisive role in the new climate order that is yet to be built. But it still needs to find the meaning within its story, and to set out on a new path to building a common future. This is what more and more of its citizens are asking of it today.

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