"The fate of my country rests in your hands"

Today's highs and lows at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen

Talks have stalled in Copenhagen today, after the G77 nations pulled out of the debate to "avoid a train wreck at the end of the week". Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, who works with the G77 nations, said: "Australia and Japan are crying foul while blocking movement on legally binding emissions reductions for rich countries. This tit-for-tat approach is no way to deal with the climate crisis."

The conflict is over the difficult issue of mitigation, the financing of emission reductions, and green development in developing countries. Developed countries are stalling in putting a figure on the table.

World leaders have started to roll in to Copenhagen today and the heightened tempo of the agreements is obvious outside the Bella Centre, where accredited negotiators, press and observers are facing four-hour queues to get in. The organisers of the summit have issued 35,000 passes for a centre with a maximum capacity of 15,000: not exactly a pillar of Danish efficiency.

As negotiations heat up, one of the main concerns among NGOs today focuses on the transparency of negotiations. Yesterday, a group of 48 country representatives met outside the conference. The meeting, known as the Green Room, was hosted by the COP presidency. Pablo Solón, Bolivian ambassador to the UN, said: "We are asking for a transparent, democratic, and inclusive process. It seems negotiators are living in the Matrix, while the real negotiation is taking place in the 'Green Room', in small stealth dinners with selective guests." There is a real sense of uncertainty among smaller nations. The threat of walkouts is constant and promises to provide continued drama during the week.

Yesterday, the Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry made an emotional speech to the conference, outlining the powerlessness that smaller states are beginning to feel. He addressed the summit president, Connie Hedegaard: "I am a humble and insignificant member of the government of Tuvalu . . . I woke this morning and I was crying, and that's not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands."

However, contrary to my earlier post, it's not all doom and gloom inside the centre. One of the most positive outcomes that this conference is set to achieve is in forest protection and reforestation, known as REDD. I talked to delegates from Gabon last night, who represent a country that is 80 per cent forested land and has the lowest rate of deforestation in the world. They were very positive about outcomes for a treaty to protect forests and forest communities.

Yesterday the REDD lobby succeeded in getting the signature of the governor of Amazonia and environmental economist Nicholas Stern as well as hundreds of others. Leaders are expected to use REDD to buy themselves time and carbon credit. But opposition to the movement comes from the Congo Basin and Papau New Guinea, which argue that developed nations will not commit to binding land-use regulation.

 

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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit