December 16, 2019

From a Coal and Steel Community to a Carbon-Free Union? Climate policy tests the credibility of the new European Commission

Tourists walk on walkways during high water at St Mark's Square in Venice, northern Italy, 15 December 2019. The tide reached some 115 centimeters above the sea level. The floods in Venice were highlighted also by Ursula von der Leyen.
Tourists walk on walkways during high water at St Mark's Square in Venice, northern Italy, 15 December 2019. The tide reached some 115 centimeters above the sea level. The floods in Venice were highlighted also by Ursula von der Leyen.

The new European Commission that took office in early December has set climate policy as its top priority. A carbon-neutral Europe may become the goal that unites the EU and strengthens its global position. On the other hand, if the ambitious goals prove unrealistic, they may instead aggravate the EU’s internal splits and weaken its credibility.

The European Commission has been called an engine of integration. It has played a central role in achieving major goals promoting this. The Commission’s historic tasks include the creation of the internal market, the introduction of the euro and the Union’s Eastern enlargement. Such large-scale projects have always brought about political tensions. It has never been easy to gain the support of all member states for major changes. Nevertheless, the projects mentioned have been successful and led the EU towards closer integration.

Climate policy is a different realm in that it does not require deepening of integration or change the nature of the EU. Europe is now forced to tackle a new kind of problem. During this decade, the EU has had to find rapid solutions to various political crises, including the eurozone and migration crisis and Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. These issues have created sharp divisions between and within member states.

Climate change is increasingly being spoken of as another acute crisis demanding urgent solutions. In a recent speech to the European Parliament, the new president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, highlighted the floods in Venice, forest fires in Portugal and drought in Lithuania as wake-up calls that should force us to act.

Many people, especially the young generation, believe that stopping climate change should be the top priority for politicians at this time. It has been said for years that integration’s historical purpose of securing peace and welfare in Europe is no longer a sufficient cause to justify the existence of the European Union. (Besides, the eurozone crisis dealt a heavy blow to Europeans’ faith in the EU’s ability to secure their well-being.) Ambitious climate policy may offer a new raison d’être for the EU, especially in the eyes of the young. The integration that began with the European Coal and Steel Community may take on the new form of a carbon-neutral union in the future.

However, it is no easy task to bring the whole EU together to pursue ambitious climate policy objectives. The Commission must secure the support of all member states. All members except Poland have approved the objective of a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050. Estonia initially joined the group of blocking eastern member states in June, but changed its position four months later after an impact analysis of the decision and joined the EU carbon-neutral objective.

There are concerns about the consequences of climate policy in member states and areas that are heavily dependent on coal or, in the case of Estonia, oil shale. The level of welfare in these areas, including Ida-Virumaa County, is already below the average. They should not be made to pay the price of climate policy, or cleaner energy may result in greater inequalities, social problems and political instability.

Many populist political groups that criticise the EU and offer an alternative to mainstream parties have found a new target in the objective of carbon neutrality. It is understandable that the potential losers in the climate-policy struggle may want to support this alternative.

The Commission’s Green Deal includes the creation of a so-called “Just Transition Fund” to support areas where adaptation to the new climate objectives will be the costliest and most complicated. It will not be easy to reach agreement on the conditions for support and its distribution between member states.

Climate policy has also become one of the EU’s global priorities. The new Commission, which calls itself “geopolitical”, is not about to become a geopolitical actor in a realist sense, relying on power politics. Rather, the Commission is endeavouring to strengthen the EU’s normative power, i.e. the capacity to establish international rules and standards. The EU’s future influence in the world will depend greatly on the extent to which it manages to shape and defend international rules concerning carbon emissions, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and human rights, among other issues.

The new Commission’s rhetoric entails Europe’s familiar tendency to moralise and, sometimes hypocritically, position itself as a model for other continents to follow. Hopefully a good dose of idealism will help Europe find its place in the changing world order.

This blog is based on an article that was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.