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28 February 2024

Europe’s consensus on climate is crumbling

With farmers in revolt and the far right surging, is Ursula von der Leyen about to wreck her own green agenda?

By Wolfgang Münchau

At stake in the European elections in June this year will be everything that defines the modern EU: a large volume of net zero legislation, a values-based foreign policy and ever more intrusive business regulation. Polls suggest the centrist majority that has supported these policies is growing slimmer.

Ursula von der Leyen has been the quintessential representative of that majority. Born in Brussels, German by nationality, proposed by France, she was the perfect candidate for European Commission president in late 2019. Now she is seeking a second term. Whether she will succeed will depend to a large extent on whether the centrist four-party coalition that supported her in 2019 will hold.

All over Europe, we are now seeing a backlash against the kind of policies the Von der Leyen Commission represents. The far right is part of that response, but the main political shift has been inside Von der Leyen’s own political group, the European People’s Party (EPP), of which the German CDU/CSU is the largest member.

This backlash follows one of the most hectic political phases in recent EU history. When Covid struck in early 2020, Von der Leyen was instrumental in setting up the EU’s recovery fund to help countries deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic. Then came the Green Deal, a hefty tranche of legislation on renewable energy, land use, forestry, energy efficiency, emission standards for cars and trucks, and a directive on energy taxes. There was also a tightening of standards on pesticides, air quality, water pollution and waste water.

Farmers are resisting this programme because it affects their livelihoods. Industrialists, too, are unhappy. A big part of the Green Deal was its industrial policy; the flagship legislation was the Net Zero Industry Act. Industry used to be the EU’s strongest supporter. But with the new laws came new bureaucracy: now, all EU-funded investment must include a green component of at least 30 per cent, while a carbon border adjustment mechanism, to take effect in 2026, will penalise imports that do not meet EU carbon-emission standards. Together, EU legislation in the last few years amounts to a near total corporate regime change.

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Compliance with some regulations is virtually impossible for companies without dedicated legal teams. It is going to get worse. Under discussion right now is a supply-chain law that would make European companies responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain – including the suppliers of their suppliers.

My expectation is that the hyperactive phase of this green agenda will end with the elections in June. Some of it might even go into reverse. I am even starting to doubt whether the EU will ever enforce the 2035 target for phasing out fossil-fuel-driven cars. This is an industrial-policy disaster in the making, because Europe’s car makers are having trouble selling their electric cars.

It is instructive to look at what happened to Green politics in Germany. The coalition of the centre-left SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP started with great enthusiasm in 2021, but is now hopelessly divided. After a string of unpopular laws, Germany’s anti-Green surge has been in full force for some time. Both the far-right AfD and Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left-populist party have identified the Greens as their main opponent. They depict them as members of metropolitan elites forcing their urban values on rural communities. The language suggests parallels with Brexit. As the EU is associated with partisan policies of the centre left, opposition to those policies and opposition to the EU are starting to merge.

It was the sudden abolition of a diesel subsidy for agricultural vehicles that led farmers to protest in Germany. But their discontent goes deeper. What is happening all over Europe is the first organised revolt against the green agenda. The centre right has discovered that there are votes to be had by opposing green policies. Farmers and rural communities are starting to fight back.

A consequence of this is that the centrist coalition is no longer viable. This is a healthy development. When centrist parties always form coalitions with one another, we should not be surprised to see parties emerge on the fringes. The centrists’ reaction to the rise of the far right has been to erect firewalls – by simply refusing to engage with such parties. This might work to begin with. But when the far right exceeds certain thresholds in support, as it has in Germany, such firewalls cannot withstand the electoral arithmetic.

In Brussels, the firewall is cracking. The EPP has already opened up to the European Conservatives and Reformists group, whose most influential member is Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right Italian prime minister, who has said she will support Von der Leyen. Meloni’s big issue is immigration: I would not rule out the idea of Von der Leyen once again assembling a majority; what I struggle to imagine is a coalition that encompasses both the left and Meloni.

It is not clear whether Renew Europe, the liberal grouping in the European Parliament, will still support Von der Leyen. Support for liberal parties is weakening everywhere, including in France. Mark Rutte’s Party for Freedom and Democracy lost last year’s election in the Netherlands. The German FDP is fighting for its political survival within the coalition in Berlin. Von der Leyen’s hyperactive green industrial agenda is the antithesis of what conservative-liberal parties such as the FDP are standing for.

And herein lies the ultimate irony. If Ursula von der Leyen were to win a second term, she would spend most of it undoing what she did in her first.

[See also: The West underestimated Russia]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything