EU Climate Policies Face New Hurdles Amid Rightward Shift in Parliament

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The election saw right-wing calls to scrap certain Green Deal policies, notably the 2035 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, set for parliamentary review in 2026. (Credit: Pixabay)

by | Jun 10, 2024

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A right-leaning tilt in the European Parliament is poised to present challenges in advancing ambitious EU climate policies. Nonetheless, according to lawmakers, officials, and analysts, most of Europe’s pioneering green initiatives are expected to endure.

Sunday night’s provisional results from the European Parliament election revealed a majority held by centrist parties. There were also notable gains for right-wing and far-right factions expressing skepticism towards the EU’s “Green Deal” environmental initiatives, juxtaposed with significant losses incurred by Green parties.

“I don’t think we’ll be rolling back on (climate) policies. But I do think that it will be more complicated to get new policies off the ground,” Bas Eickhout, head of the European Parliament’s Greens lawmaker group, told Reuters.

Political Landscape and Climate Policies

EU climate measures over the next five years will depend on the incoming European Commission, responsible for proposing EU laws. However, the newly elected European Parliament will have a say in every new green policy. Sunday’s election result signals tougher math to approve new EU climate measures.

“All new policies will be harder to pass. But backsliding is very unlikely,” Krzysztof Bolesta, Poland’s secretary of state for climate, told Reuters. “It is possible that new ambition will be delayed, mostly for populistic reasons,” agreed Julian Popov, who until April was EU member Bulgaria’s environment minister.

That could affect an upcoming 2040 EU climate target, which is needed to steer the EU towards its 2050 net zero emissions target. The Commission has suggested the 2040 goal should be an ambitious 90% emissions cut, but it needs approval from both EU countries and the Parliament.

The upcoming European Commission and Parliament will also face tough decisions on whether to introduce new policies to push industries towards that 2040 target. That includes farming, a sector whose emissions have barely fallen since 2005. But after months of protests across Europe by angry farmers, there is little political appetite to target the sector with new rules, especially if the cost of complying with them would drive up food prices for citizens already dealing with the biggest jump in living costs in a generation.

Market Reactions

Shares in renewable energy companies were knocked lower by concerns the election results could slow the green energy transition. Wind turbine makers Vestas and Nordex were down more than 3% on Monday, and Orsted was down 0.5%.

No Big U-Turn Expected

While new climate measures might face a tougher ride, a full-scale reversal of the dozens of EU climate policies passed in the last five years would be legally difficult. Those policies – which include renewable energy targets and a strengthened carbon pricing regime on power and industry – are fixed into EU law and already being rolled out across the 27 member states.

EU emissions are down by nearly a third from 1990 levels, and Europe is installing wind and solar energy capacity at record speed. Still, the election campaign saw mounting calls from the right to scrap some Green Deal policies – with a prime target the EU’s 2035 ban on new gas and diesel cars. That policy has a 2026 review clause, on which the Parliament will get a say.

“It was an ideological folly, which absolutely must be corrected,” Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni told the online magazine Open last week.

Three EU diplomats singled out the 2035 car policy that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will face significant pressure to weaken, including from some lawmakers in her center-right European People’s Party who want it scrapped. Von der Leyen needs support from most lawmakers in the new European Parliament to win a second term.

But officials and analysts said broad climate policy rollbacks are unlikely, partly because the EU’s existing climate measures add up to delivering its 2030 climate target—to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 55% from 1990 levels—which national governments and lawmakers approved into EU law.

“There might well be changes in individual pieces of legislation, but what will be important to watch is how this adds up,” said Mats Engström, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

Shifting Focus: Security and Industry

Contrary to the last EU election in 2019, when millions of young climate protesters took to Europe’s streets, this year’s campaign saw climate change usurped by issues including immigration, economic woes, and struggling European industries.

According to the European Investment Bank, meeting the EU’s 2030 climate target will require investments of $1.12 trillion annually, a jump of around $398.96 billion per year compared with 2010-2020. Investing in local industries was a campaign pledge across the political spectrum as competition sharpens with the U.S. and China to produce green tech like low-carbon steel and electric cars.

Some analysts said this focus would see the EU pass more funds and policies to support climate-friendly projects—but with a focus on helping industry rather than being “green” and “clean.”

“If it’s about scaling up manufacturing of green technologies here in Europe, then that may be done in the name of ‘industrial competitiveness’ and not for the climate,” said Linda Kalcher, Executive Director at think-tank Strategic Perspectives. “It might be that we see the rhetoric shifting, but the action on the ground being the same,” Kalcher said.

Election Aftermath: Implications for Key Players

The four-day European Union election has shown an unprecedented dominance of far-right parties over ruling parties in France and Germany, the bloc’s traditional driving forces. French President Emmanuel Macron was the biggest loser of the elections; he was forced to call for snap national elections after a drubbing from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats also suffered as the extreme-right Alternative for Germany shrugged off scandals to make massive gains in the EU elections. On the other hand, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy displayed a strong performance with 28% of the votes, boosting her leadership at home and consolidating her kingmaker role in Europe.

Green and pro-business liberal groups across Europe suffered heavy defeats. Still, mainstream formations held their ground, with the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) remaining the biggest bloc in the 27-nation EU’s assembly. Making decisions for the next five years will be harder for the European Parliament.

Key Takeaways

Macron’s Loss Sends Shockwaves

Macron was easily the biggest loser in the EU elections, whose decision to call for snap elections amounts to a “roll of the dice” on his political future and that of France. The move immediately hit French stocks and government bonds and caused the euro to drop. Le Pen’s anti-immigration nationalist party was estimated to get around 31-32% of the vote, more than Macron’s Renaissance party.

A Shock for Germany’s Olaf Scholz

Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats recorded their worst post-World War II results in a nationwide vote, with 13.9% of the votes. Despite recent setbacks, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) finished second with around 15.9% votes. These include scandals surrounding its two lead candidates, one of whom appeared to defend some Nazi Germans.

Von der Leyen’s Centre-Right Party Holds

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen’s center-right EPP is the biggest winner in this election, projecting to clinch 191 seats and remaining by far the biggest winner. The EPP garnered a few more seats, but the parliament is also expanding from 705 seats in 2019 to 720 seats this year, so the increase was marginal. The second-biggest bloc, the center-left Socialists and Democrats, lost some seats but have 135 seats so far.

Setback for Greens and Liberals

The parties facing significant setbacks in the EU elections were the environmentalist Greens, which are expected to lose 20 seats in the EU parliament, almost a third of their tally from 2019. A series of protests across Europe by farmers angered at the burden imposed by new climate laws helped to damage their chances. The EU has positioned itself as a world leader in combating global warming.

However, Spain’s centrist parties contained a far-right surge in Sunday’s European Parliament elections. The center-right People’s Party (PP) and Sanchez’s Socialists (PSOE) gained two-thirds of the vote, winning 42 of the 61 available seats. Bulgaria’s center-right GERB party, led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, also leads but needs two partners for a governing coalition. However, the Swedish populist party with far-right roots, Sweden Democrats, suffered a setback with only 13% of the vote.

What Happens Now?

Senior party officials are meeting Monday to determine what groups and alliances might be formed in the parliament for the next five years. Party presidents will hold their first formal talks on June 17. The EU assembly will also need to approve the next president of the European Commission—most likely incumbent Ursula von der Leyen for a second term—and their 26 other commissioners.

One thing is clear: The results will slow decision-making and the passing of legislation on issues ranging from climate change to farm subsidies. The next five years will determine whether Europe achieves its 2030 climate change targets. The EU’s principal role in EU trade policy is to approve free trade agreements before they can enter force. The EU needs to reform its internal agriculture policy and how it supports its members to equalize living standards before it admits new countries like Ukraine.

Implications for the 2024 U.S. Presidential Election

Although the European Parliament election results may not directly impact the 2024 U.S Presidential Election, they could still offer insights into broader global political trends.

The shift towards right-wing and far-right parties in Europe could reflect a broader global trend towards populism and nationalist sentiment. This could potentially influence the political discourse in the United States, particularly if certain candidates or parties choose to align themselves with similar ideologies or adopt similar policy positions.

Europe’s election campaign focus on immigration, economic woes, and industrial competitiveness could resonate with American voters, especially given the ongoing debates in the United States.

The outcome of the European Parliament election, with centrist parties maintaining a majority despite gains by right-wing factions, could suggest a continued polarization of politics both in Europe and potentially in the United States. This polarization could shape the strategies and tactics employed by candidates in the 2024 election as they seek to mobilize their base and appeal to undecided voters.

Thoughts on the upcoming election? We’d love to hear from you. 

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