Up to now, things have been done with a degree of flexibility that has also been surprising in Brussels. The ambitious goals of the European ‘Green Deal’ have been embraced without too much noise by all EU countries over the past eighteen months and have even been nailed down in a special climate law.
But, officials and diplomats acknowledge: that peace is now over. 2030, when emissions must be reduced by 55 percent, is approaching fast. And with the historically extensive package that the European Commission presented on Wednesday, the battle about the climate transition within the EU will begin. Now it’s going to hurt, it sounds in Brussels. And that means that responsible European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (Climate) has the Herculean task waiting to get his plans accepted. “Everyone was still applauding our goals,” says Timmermans. “But if you show the consequences, they will now say: we didn’t mean it that way! My question then is: how? You have to start now, otherwise you’ll never make it.”
Timmermans and his officials are supported by a growing public awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis – reflected in the rise of green parties in several EU countries. But because the proposed measures will now inevitably affect citizens’ wallets, at the same time there is growing concern in many Member States about a ‘backlash‘.
Fund for the hardest hit
It is this fear that has fueled fierce opposition to the heart of the proposals: a European system for pricing transport and heating buildings. Especially in France, which is experiencing the trauma of the ‘yellow vests’. But also in Eastern Europe, which is lagging far behind in the energy transition and is concerned that it will bear the brunt of the costs. The risk of ‘losing’ people is also why climate NGOs have turned against the new system almost unanimously.
The spoonful of sugar with which Timmermans still wants to make it palatable does not take away those concerns. With a new special European fund, filled with income from emission sales, Brussels wants to support citizens who are hardest hit. But much is still unclear about the how, which fuels suspicions about whether the money will end up well. Moreover, ‘richer’ countries such as the Netherlands are reluctant to send payments from ‘their’ citizens to Eastern Europe. “You should not start doing income politics through climate policy and start a transfer union from west to east,” says VVD MEP Jan Huitema.
What is certain is that with the proposal, Brussels will take more control over the climate transition. It has to be, say EU officials: the urgency is now too great. But critics fear that it could lead to extra euroscepticism and member states will easily shift their own responsibilities. “They can easily point to Brussels and sit back themselves,” says GroenLinks MEP Bas Eickhout.
It is by no means the only sensitive element in the climate package. For example, there is the phasing out by 2035 of new cars with a fuel engine – fiercely opposed from countries with a powerful car industry such as Germany and France. Or the new ‘border levy’ on the import of products with high CO2emissions, which are already leading to geopolitical tensions with the US and China.
All proposals are attuned to each other and hook into each other like an ingenious construction. But in the negotiations with the European Parliament and the Member States, there is a great risk that parts will fail. Does the total package collapse with a breath of wind?
Also read: The climate transition will affect everyone: these are the key points from the Green Deal
Timmermans and team see the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ that they have put together as a strength. “A cage,” one EU official jokingly calls it. Because the goals are already set, anything that falls in the negotiations must be compensated elsewhere. “You can’t nibble on it,” says Timmermans. “You can at most put something else in it. If you don’t like something, I’d like to hear how to change it.”
Meanwhile, time is ticking by. Legislative processes in Brussels are notoriously tough, and even the most optimists are not counting on negotiations before 2023 to produce results. That leaves the EU only about six years, in its own terminology,’Fit for 55‘ to become.
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