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12 February 2024

The EU is lurching to the right – that’s bad news for the green transition

Populist and nationalist parties are sweeping elections on the continent, threatening measures in the Green Deal.

By Jonny Ball

In the heady days of the People’s Vote marches, when interminable, late-night parliamentary sessions drove sleepless politicos half-mad, it was thought that Britain was becoming a basket case. The House of Commons refused to back any Brexit agreement or a second referendum as the country hurtled towards no deal. Brexit, some said, was a hard-right project to remove us from the orbit of an institution supposedly characterised by adherence to liberal-democratic and progressive values.

There were flaws in this argument at the time, but since then they have only multiplied: Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling higher than the governing social-democratic party of the chancellor Olaf Scholz; Geert Wilders just won the Dutch election; Giorgia Meloni, whose political roots are in a neo-fascist party, is Italian prime minister; and the populist-nationalist Swedish Democrats are propping up a centre-right government in Stockholm. Add that to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the rise of Vox in Spain, as well as the continued presence of illiberal, authoritarian governments in the former Eastern Bloc, and it looks like the far-right is on the march across the continent. What does that mean for Europe’s green agenda?

In June, the EU elects a new parliament. If the polling bears out, two right-wing blocs will likely perform well. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, co-chaired by a Vox politician (who counts historical leaders of Spanish fascism as his heroes) is set to come third. The equally unsavoury Identity and Democracy group will probably increase its seat tally — a bloc which includes Le Pen’s outfit as a member, as well as the Italian La Lega. Speculation abounds that these two groups could merge post-election. This would make it extremely difficult to prevent the EU’s direction of travel from lurching to the right and the position of the centre-right EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, would be under threat. An elected EU Parliament dominated by the hard right would be far less likely to ratify her reappointment by the unelected EU Council, sparking a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

The EU’s Green Deal, which has been championed by Von Der Leyen, would come under further scrutiny, too. Already, farmers’ protests in Germany, the Netherlands, and now France, have led to a watering down of key provisions in green legislation. Last week, after blocking roads and dumping produce in their home countries, protestors descended on a square in Brussels, lit bonfires, and pulled down a statue, before being water-cannoned by Belgian police. Their opposition to additional green regulations led the EU Parliament president Roberta Metsola to say: “We see you, we hear you. If you want your voice to be heard, make it heard also in June, when you vote for the European Parliament elections.”

They may well do just that, and if recent results in the EU’s constituent member nations are any indicator, we’re in for a shock. Part of Von der Leyen’s green push involves a commitment to emissions reductions of 90 per cent by 2040, but that will be in doubt if the European right get their way. Meloni, who acts as president of the ECR as well as Italian PM, has described the Green Deal as “climate fundamentalism”.

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The legislation, originally backed by “at least $1trn” worth of investment, was billed as an answer to the US’s Inflation Reduction Act. Von der Leyen promised to “keep supporting European industry” through the green transition. But critics had already derided it for its failure to “end fossil fuels or industrial farming”. In the face of yet more concessions, the growth of discontent in the heavily polluting agricultural sector, and the potential victories of right-wing populists in June, even the limited scope and path to net zero set out in the original deal looks littered with obstacles.

This article was originally published as an edition of the Green Transition, New Statesman Spotlight’s weekly newsletter on the economics of net zero. To see more editions and subscribe, click here.

[See also: Brexit is not as secure as it appears]

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