by Frederic Simon*
The von der Leyen Commission is now ready to take office on 1 December, after the confirmation hearings of the French, Romanian and Hungarian candidates. What lessons do you draw from this rather painstaking exercise, which for the first time saw a French candidate – Sylvie Goulard – rejected by MEPs?
When the European Parliament does not play its role, it is lambasted for being a puppet parliament. So, I think we play our part. We have high standards of transparency and ethics, and this has to be welcomed.
Now, Sylvie Goulard’s rejection is also the result of political games. Following the last elections, we have entered a new world where there is no automatic majority in the European Parliament, as was the case previously with the Social Democrats (S&D) and the European People’s Party (EPP). Since the last elections, the cards have been reshuffled.
So this process is the result of several factors. There is a democratic element which I find healthy and a political situation in the European Parliament that we have to stabilise. That work will now begin between the three political groups – the EPP, S&D, Renew – and the European Commission so as to give substance to the commitments von der Leyen took before Parliament in July.
You are referring to a kind of tripartite coalition between the centre-right (EPP), the socialists (S&D) and the liberals (Renew Europe) in Parliament. Is this coalition now explicitly established?
It is the majority that voted for Ursula von der Leyen, and it is the majority that is the stabilising element of the European Parliament. It is with this majority that we must build political agreements with the Commission.
Today, it is clear that without these three political groups, there is no majority in the European Parliament. Now, that does not mean that we will find agreements on everything. So we have to identify the points on which we can agree, and pull our weigh together on these points in discussions with the European Commission. And then, when we don’t agree, we have to assume these differences.
Will the Renew Europe group provide unconditional support to the von der Leyen Commission? Will there be voting instructions at the November plenary?
We will discuss it this week. We strongly criticised the title of the portfolio attributed to Mr Schinas concerning the European way of life. These criticisms have been heard and the name of the portfolio was changed. Now, Europeans expect the Commission to get down to work.
We now want to support the Commission, not just do it lip service. Mrs von der Leyen’s July speech suits us very well. And for us, the political gamble we made with the Renaissance list – putting ourselves at the centre of the political game with a delegation which is now recorded as the second strongest in the European Parliament after the CDU, in a central group without which no majority is possible – it is exactly this scenario that is being realised. We are winning this political gamble.
The tripartite coalition you are referring to is not sufficient to win a majority in Parliament. Votes from elsewhere will also be necessary, probably among the Greens. In your opinion, did Mrs von der Leyen convince MEPs who, like you, have an ecologist sensibility?
Look at von der Leyen’s project: the climate bank, the sustainable investment package, the carbon border tax, the biodiversity strategy, and so on. Add the climate law, carbon neutrality for 2050, and the 2030 climate goals – all of this forms a package which is unprecedented.
And this package is supported by a new organisation at the Commission, with the Green Deal portfolio awarded to Frans Timmermans. Imagine that the Commission was a government, with a minister in charge of the climate, energy, environment, health, agriculture, transport and regional policy portfolios. With the CAP and cohesion, this represents two thirds of the European budget!
This is a portfolio that does not exist in any other national government. We have an organisation that gives Frans Timmermans the means of its ambitions. So all that is very positive.
Now, these ambitions have to materialise in the Commission’s communication on the European Green Deal, expected in December. The objective of the climate law is not only to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It also requires a quantified target for 2030. Because if such a goal is not put into law, it would be rightly perceived as a setback in terms of ambition.
The quantified objective for 2030, what is it?
This is the famous 50 to 55% reduction of greenhouse gases mentioned in the program of Mrs. von der Leyen. I think it’s a strong political marker. This 55% figure must be in the climate law, pending the impact study that the Commission has committed to make. If there were no numbers, for us it would be a step backwards.
Poland and other Central European countries are reluctant to support this climate neutrality goal for 2050. They are asking additional funds, notably to replace ageing coal power plants. Do you think these countries are right to raise the issue of funding?
The just transition is a fundamental issue: it must be fair in social and regional terms. With regard to Poland and other Central European countries, all EU funds must be used for greening, in particular the cohesion funds.
And this greening of the European budget should not, in my opinion, translate into additional funds allocated to Western Europe. That would be objectively unacceptable for the countries of Central Europe and they would be right to complain.
That is why I am advocating for EU heads of state to adopt this principle at the European Council. Of course, there is also the just transition fund, with its 5 billion euros or so. But that won’t be enough, it is one element among others, even if it is significant politically.
The most important thing is the greening of the whole European budget, because that is where the vast majority of funds are available. And this greening of the budget goes hand in hand with the transformation of the EIB into a climate bank.
In my opinion, all these elements are likely to reassure the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It is in these countries that the needs are greatest, in terms of energy, clean transportation and so on. So, it seems normal to me that European taxpayer’s money is used primarily to serve the areas where needs are highest. And Poland is one of them so I think it’s legitimate for them to put this issue on the table.
On the other hand, it would be illegitimate for Poland to block EU progress on the climate neutrality objective for 2050. Today, Poland is very isolated, even Hungary and Estonia have moved on this issue.
And I think the December European Council will be the right moment to finalise an agreement for 2050, with assurances for the Poles in terms of the EU budget so that Europe is not prevented from moving forward on climate neutrality.
Could the EU place Poland in a minority in case it doesn’t want to move forward on climate neutrality?
Poland could potentially put its veto. But if it did, it would also lose all ability to push its interests on all the other issues. The political cost would be very high.
Instead of confrontation, I would rather support the principle of adopting a green EU budget that meets Poland’s legitimate demands, while at the same time allowing a political agreement on climate neutrality for 2050.
With the reform of the EIB, there are about €1,000 billion of investment that can now be mobilised for the climate over the next decade. But the needs are much higher, they are evaluated at least 500 billion per year….
According to the Commission, the investment gap today – both public and private – amounts to around €200 billion annually across the EU. The EIB, generating an extra €15 billion a year in direct investment, adds about €90 billion a year, taking into account the leverage effect.
That should send a strong signal to all financial actors, public and private. The EIB, by any means, has set a new standard for financial institutions. It is now up to other lenders to align themselves with the EIB. In any case, our first campaign promise was to create a climate bank – and this promise is now being delivered.
Do these new financial means measure up to the climate challenge? Are there still, in your opinion, efforts to be made?
There are still efforts to be made. When the Commission publishes its communication on the Green Deal in December, it needs to put forward a clear plan to finance an extra €200 billion a year in green investments. It’s not about public investments, the main part will come from the private sector.
So this strategy must have a financial leg – public and private – and a second leg in the form of standards – on industry, agriculture and transport – in order to generate investments. For example, CO2 standards on car emissions generate investments in electric mobility. And all this helps to reduce the €200 billion climate finance gap.
I also note that Frans Timmermans committed to a large building insulation plan. With transport, housing insulation is THE big issue on which the EU is lagging behind in terms of climate action. We must now fill this gap with the announcements to be made under the Green Deal.
Several countries and regions in Europe have declared a climate emergency. Should the European Parliament do the same?
I put forward a proposal in the Renew Europe group to declare the state of climate emergency at the next plenary session in Strasbourg at the end of November.
It would be important to do it at that time – just before the COP25, as the new Commission takes office, and only a few weeks after Trump’s announcement to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement.
It is also a very important message to the rest of the world: We, in Europe, declare a state of climate and environmental emergency. The fact that Europe is the first continent to declare a climate emergency, seems to me very important as a geopolitical response to Trump’s announcements. And it’s the right time to do it.
Declaring a climate emergency, what does it change? Is it purely diplomatic or does it also change the way we do things here in Europe?
It is primarily a diplomatic message in the geopolitical and international context that I just described. It’s a way of reaffirming our global leadership on climate change.
And then, it also reinforces Europe’s commitments internally. Once you have declared the state of environmental and climate emergency, it is more difficult to renege on commitments that have been made.
*EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor
**first published in: www.euractiv.com