In case you were wondering about the fate of the Green Deal, EU’s dream and main objective in the von der Leyen mandate, it’s back with a vengeance: you may have noticed that last Wednesday (18 may) the EU announced the launch of the REPowerEU strategy. And it includes two targets more ambitious than the ones in the Green Deal/Fit for 55 package:
- Energy efficiency increase: 13% instead of 9% in the original Green Deal.
- 2030 target for renewable energy: 35% of the total instead of 30%.
The REPowerEu strategy is about replacing fossil fuels imported from Russia, in view of the Ukraine crisis, and comes with a hefty lump of money, as most European initiatives: €225 billions in loans from the Recovery and Resilience Fund and an extra €20 billion in grants – this is a Commission proposal to increase the financial envelope. Other additional resources from cohesion funds and such are to be reallocated.
Good news, the Green Deal is on. No matter how sceptic or ironic we all can be about it, who doesn’t want a clean and carbon neutral world? But still: how come that Europe is doubling down on the Green Deal in times of uncertainty? There are various estimates and assessments about Europe cutting down its dependency on Russian oil fuels (the one in Financial Times is spectacular), and they all concur to one idea: it won’t be easy. Some sources say it will even be impossible to totally decouple from Russia until winter, and there might be some troubles ahead. Doesn’t the Commission take this into account? Don’t Western politicians care about their citizens’ wishes and comfort?
The answer is – they do, sometimes maybe too much. But the double down on the Green Deal looks like a symptom of a pattern in EU politics. Let’s go back in time to September 2020, at Ursula von der Leyen’s #soteu (State of the Union) speech. Then, the Commission’s President said the money in what would become the NextGen Fund will be given to states that adhere to EU’s democratic values. Few people noticed it, and others thought it was self-righteous rhetoric. Almost two years passed and now, Viktor Orban’s Hungary is in trouble. It hasn’t complied to standards. Ursula von der Leyen meant business in September 2020. And by the way, the new European superstar, Poland, will still have to comply to the same democratic standards no matter how many Ukrainian refugees it will take in. A Commission’s spokesperson tweeted last week they still must comply to criteria related to the judicial system to be able to access funds. This is still under the radar; it would be a gaffe to scold such enthusiastic Europeans right now, wouldn’t it?
Could Brussels have done this without the pandemics? We don’t think so. We had a plague and a high level of public anxiety about it. At France and Germany’s instigation, the EU released almost €807 billion to cope with the economic difficulties related to the pandemics. But the plan also contained the conformity condition: we’ll fund you if you stick to democratic values.
Evidently, there was no way Brussels could have spent €807 billion (or any significant money) to “buy” European values for its member states – especially not for illiberal ones. Probably strong Western democracies’ citizens would have objected most to that. So the EU used the COVID Zeitgeist as leverage.
That means the NextGen fund is at the same time policy and politics. Policy is everything related to health and macroeconomy. Politics is about EU’s democratic values, which is a philosophical ideal, relatively indifferent to European voters when it comes to public spending and sacrifice.
Now let’s get back to the present. We have two elements that possibly form the same political pattern. A high level of public anxiety, related to the Ukraine war. And a philosophical ideal, the Green Deal, that may quickly turn unpopular whenever it affects European comfort. But European citizens will be much more likely to accept personal sacrifice if it’s related to the Ukraine war.
Talking about personal sacrifice, we do know what will involve. It’s hidden away in the “energy efficiency increase to 13%” objective, that obviously means energy savings in plain speak. When digging in the pile of documents the Commission has released with the REPowerEU announcement, we can find a Communication that plainly says:
The key sectors for significant short-term savings are heating in households and services, and transport and mobility.Communication from the European Commission to the European Parliament, the Council etc., 18 May 2022
Is that all there is? The most righteous of us, Europeans, have already felt it, when turning down their heating systems a couple of degrees in March or April. It’s not a big personal sacrifice. But it is a big deal for politicians. Vote is volatile, the political shape of Europe is changing, elections are close.
If there’s something certain about the green transition, it’s there will be quite a few backlashes and logjams until 2030. Accurate predictions are crucial, realistic roadmaps will greatly ease the transition. But the bottom-line is that Europe started a huge transformation that will have side effects. This is something that mature political judgement must take into account and finding a way through all this comes down to simply pushing things forward without political damage that is not necessarily related to political egoism, but to the EU as a whole.
In the nineteen-eighties, in Romania, there was a legend about Ceaușescu, the communist dictator, being told that people were freezing in their homes, because of energy savings. They say Ceaușescu sneered: “Why don’t they just put another jacket on?!” Europe itself cannot ask its citizens to simply do that. What it can do is to use negative public mood related to one event or political state of things to channel effects related to another.
Meanwhile, winter is coming and we might quiver a little. Ursula von der Leyen is saying it, like Ned Stark used to in the first Game of Thrones series. But the actual problem is the summer is coming. Global warming. It’s evident that the Commission’s President won’t be beheaded for saying it, like Ned Stark was. And we don’t see any reason why she should. But sometimes we still wonder about politicians with such a long list of virtuous motives, and the possible outcomes of their actions – Ned Stark’s story, after all. Maybe we’re simply asking too much from our politicians. Not that they’re corrupted or incompetent. Too much in terms of what could or should be done.