Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on climate change policies was crude and dramatic. But it is also symptomatic of what has been happening within centre-right parties all over Europe as well. The consensus on the Paris climate change agreement is starting to break down.
Having listened to German Christian Democrats (CDU) on this issue, their stated support for climate change policies feels like a New Year’s resolution. The CDU candidate in Germany’s 2021 federal election, Armin Laschet, talked about climate change in “yes, but…” terms: yes, it is a terrible thing, but we have to carry everyone along. The consensus on the Paris accord was never what it seemed. Some believed in it. Others paid lip service to it. Europe’s centre right fell squarely into the latter category.
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The backlash started long before Sunak’s U-turn. The European People’s Party (EPP), the grouping that represents centre-right parties in the European Parliament, has shifted its previous position of support for the European Commission’s Green Deal. Under the leadership of Manfred Weber, an ambitious politician from the Bavarian CSU, the EPP sought to block the Commission’s proposed Nature Restoration Law, one of the most important components of the Green Deal. The central idea is that 20 per cent of land and maritime areas should be protected by 2030, and that areas deemed to be in poor environmental health should be restored by 2050.
Farmers are furious over this law. And so are their political representatives – the CDU/CSU draws much of its support from rural communities. The EPP’s revolt against the Nature Preservation Law failed at a vote in the European Parliament in July, but only narrowly. Its defeat is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new political confrontation. The centre right has hit on a new theme for itself: opposition to climate change policies. Climate change has all of a sudden become partisan.
This is a seminal policy shift. For decades, the EPP has been the big beast of European politics. Its leaders have included Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy in France; Silvio Berlusconi in Italy; José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy in Spain; and Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel in Germany. Today, the centre right is much reduced. The CDU/CSU lost the election in 2021 with its worst ever result. Forza Italia is a shadow of the party led by Berlusconi in the 2000s, now a minor coalition partner in Giorgia Meloni’s government. The French party of the centre right, the Republicans, has lost the last three presidential races. The People’s Party was favourite to win Spain’s elections in July, but failed. They are all desperate. And so are the Tories.
The main problem for the centre right in continental Europe is the far right. The CDU/CSU, now in opposition, have failed to benefit from the Olaf Scholz government’s lack of popularity. They are polling barely above their all-time low from 2021. What’s happened is that the far-right Alternative for Germany has more than doubled its support since the elections, and is now polling at 21-22 per cent. As with Brexit, the threat is not that the populists win the elections themselves, but that they are setting the agenda.
This will have profound consequences for the climate change agenda. Once an issue turns from bipartisan to partisan, you can no longer count on compliance with long-term timetables. If the goal is a net zero target by 2050, it would be complacent to think we are on track. Opposition parties eventually win elections. Over a period of more than 25 years, they surely will.
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A breakdown in the climate consensus will have ripple effects throughout societies: non-partisan institutions will find it harder to support climate change policies if they are politically controversial. The European Central Bank, for example, put itself in the vanguard among central banks with its active climate agenda – by prioritising green bonds in its asset-purchasing decisions. That will not be so easy in the future.
For now, Sunak’s decision will not have much of an impact on the rest of the world because all he did was to bring the UK closer to the EU on cars; the EU and UK now both have a 2035 target as the end date for the new registration of fuel-driven cars.
I would expect political tensions within the EU and the UK to rise as we approach that 2035 date. Both have set their target dates without securing the supply chain for electric cars. Sanctions and tariffs against China will drive up the cost of cars, and may give rise to supply chain shortages.
Parties that support the net zero target with active policies are already facing a populist backlash. The CDU/CSU have not yet positioned themselves in this debate as clearly as Sunak has done. But in Germany, we are only one poor election performance away from such a policy U-turn. Bavaria holds elections on 8 October. Right now, the polls are not looking too great for them.
The bigger lesson is this: the Western method of global policy coordination is poorly suited to long-term targets. You may be able to co-opt a government into your agenda, but not its successors. Nor can you manage voters.
Global policy coordination has reached its limits. The G20 was born out of the financial crises of the 1990s. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine breathed life back into Nato, which Emmanuel Macron once described as “brain dead”. Policy coordination, more or less, still works for short-term threats. But it does not work so well for long-term ones, not even existential threats like climate change. Vested interests will intrude. In the UK, and in the EPP group, they already have.
This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List