Bi-weekly Newsletter

11 March 2024

Bi-weekly Newsletter

11 March 2024

EU climate policies in peril as parliament faces shift to the right

Polls are predicting that the European Parliament’s two far-right groups could together be the biggest bloc after June’s election, which may mean a controlling right-wing coalition. The EU Green Deal will be in its crosshairs.

Dave Keating March 07 2024

In the run-up to EU elections in June, Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission has been sounding a different tone when it comes to the EU Green Deal. Unveiling its recommendation for a 90% emissions reduction target for 2040, her vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, stressed the Green Deal now needs to become an “industrial decarbonisation deal”. “The risk of deindustrialisation and social tension is very real,” he said. “For us, Europe’s industrial leadership and socially just, green transition are not only two sides of the same coin, but they are imperatives.”

This pivot in language to stress industry-friendliness and a suggested backtracking away from environmentalism is a directive from the top, according to Commission sources, as President von der Leyen endeavours to win the backing of right-of centre politicians for her reappointment to a second term in July. In recent months her own centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP) has been attacking some of her Green Deal policies, starting with a Nature Restoration Law it attempted to kill. The German centre-right party to which she belongs, the Christian Democratic Union, has promised in its draft EU election manifesto to “abolish the EU ban on combustion engines” – a key accomplishment of her Green Deal.

The EPP is nervously eyeing rising poll numbers for the far-right in the upcoming European Parliament elections, along with recent national victories for the far right such as in the Netherlands. “Some people are worried that von der Leyen’s Green Deal will be a weight around their necks and leave them open to attacks from the far right,” said one EPP staffer who did not want to be named because they are not authorised to speak to the media. Far-right politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France have been railing against overburdensome EU climate legislation, and have joined forces with the violent pan-European farmers protests now exploding across Europe. In response, von der Leyen has already made several concessions to farmers such as delaying newly agreed land set-aside rules in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and proposing to scrap various environmental requirements.

Many far-right Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have signed up to a resolution tabled by Belgian MEP Tom Vandendriessche from the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party calling for the Green Deal to be “abolished”. In a letter sent to MEPs asking them to sign, Vandendriessche said: “The European Green Deal and its subsequent strategies negatively affecting the daily functioning and future outlook of the European agricultural sector” and would put European industry and household purchasing power at risk.

The far right in the European Parliament is split into two groups: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and the further-right Identity & Democracy (ID) group of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Together they currently account for 18% of the parliament. According to the Europe Elects poll of polls tracker, they are projected to come third and fourth in June, attracting a quarter of votes. While it is not a massive surge, it could be enough to prevent the traditional centrist coalition of the EPP and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), which has also included the support of the Liberals (Renew) in the past, from forming a controlling majority. That could mean a controlling alliance of the EPP and the ECR, with the support or participation of ID.

The largest party in the ECR is the Polish Law & Justice Party, which spent its eight years in power in the Polish government blocking climate action in the EU Council and launching legal challenges against the Green Deal, before being ousted in October. The ECR also includes some of Europe’s biggest heavy-hitters on the far right: Brothers of Italy, which is the largest party in the Italian governing coalition; the Sweden Democrats, who are propping up the centre-right government in Stockholm; the True Finns, who came second in last year’s election in Finland; Vox, who nearly formed a governing coalition with the centre right after Spain’s election last year; and the Flemish nationalist N-VA, the largest party in the Belgian parliament.

The smaller ID group, which has struggled since losing Nigel Farage’s UKIP MEPs after Brexit but is in line for a major comeback after this election, includes Alternative for Germany, which is second in the polls nationally, and Le Pen’s National Rally, which is expected to once again be France’s largest party in the European Parliament.

Politico’s poll of polls predicts the ECR and ID will win a combined 164 seats, putting them well ahead of the centre-left Socialists & Democrats with 139 seats and tantalisingly close to the EPP’s predicted 176 seats. Three ID parties – Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, the Danish Peoples Party and Austria’s Freedom Party – have already allied with centre-right EPP member parties at national level in the past.

Unlike in parliamentary democracies, in the EU the government is not selected by the parliament. The president of the executive branch, the Commission, is appointed by a majority vote of the 27 national leaders of EU member states in the EU legislature’s upper house, the Council. However, that selection must be confirmed by a majority vote of the European Parliament. Even if national leaders want to nominate von der Leyen for a second term in July, it is unclear whether she could be confirmed in a majority vote in a newly-constituted Parliament with a right-wing majority. What is clear is that she would need to tack hard to the right during her election campaign over the coming three months, inevitably making promises to water down the EU Green Deal. This explains why she so quickly and generously offered concessions to the protesting farmers last month, stripping out huge environmental provisions of the CAP and dropping a proposed pesticides law. Officially announcing her candidacy for a second term in Berlin last week, von der Leyen stressed: “We must adapt our competitiveness to new conditions and achieve our climate goals together with business.”

“We are very worried; there is several signs of her sliding toward industry,” says Clara Bourgin, a campaigner with NGO Friends of the Earth Europe. “We have seen a lot of proposals from [green agriculture policy] ‘Farm to Fork’ already dropped. The EPP has campaigned a lot against these regulations.” She also points to an EU-industry summit convened in Antwerp on 20 February by von der Leyen and the Belgian Council presidency, where a European Green Deal Industrial Plan was proclaimed. “There is a risk these kinds of initiatives will replace the Green Deal.”

It is also possible that von der Leyen distancing herself from her Green Deal would not be enough to satisfy right-wing MEPs after the EU elections. That would mean the Council needing to appoint someone further to the right, either after a parliamentary rejection of von der Leyen in the autumn, after confirmation hearings, or anticipating said rejection and choosing someone different in July. National leaders will not want to appoint someone who cannot survive a parliamentary confirmation vote, and von der Leyen only squeaked by her 2019 confirmation by nine votes, because of anger over the Council not appointing someone who had actually run as a candidate in the election. It is inconceivable that national leaders would nominate a far-right politician from the ECR or ID, but they could lean towards someone from the right wing of the EPP in the mould of Friedrich Merz in Germany.

Even if von der Leyen can make it through the next months and survive a confirmation without throwing the Green Deal to the wolves, a post-election right-wing parliament would present major obstacles to EU climate action. Almost all of the Green Deal’s implementing laws in the ‘Fit for 55’ package have been adopted, meaning they will largely be protected from dismantling by the parliament, which does not have the right to propose new legislation or scrap old legislation (only the Commission can do that). However, it will mean any further climate laws, or legal additions to the package, will be difficult. For instance, the Commission’s recommendation for a 2040 emissions reduction target still needs to be legally proposed by the next Commission, and could be rejected by a right-wing parliament.

“We are assessing how to deal with that, but it will definitely be a challenge,” says Bourgin. “We need to see how we would work with such a parliament. We want to still have these wins [like in von der Leyen’s first term], but we also don’t want to make too many concessions to the more extreme right.” She said it could lead to a strange situation where the Council (national governments) ends up being more progressive than the parliament on environment and climate policy in the next term, a complete reversal from how things have been up until now.

The shift would be drastic, because the 2019–24 term under von der Leyen’s leadership has passed a record amount of climate legislation. “The continent von der Leyen inherited in 2019 has little to do with today – the energy landscape even less so,” says Ivo Cabral from the Global Strategic Communications Council, a think tank. The economic signals sent by her Green Deal have spurred major investment – 34% of European electricity came from renewables when she became president. That figure is now 44.4%. The EU’s clean energy sectors attracted $77bn (€70.56bn) in investment in 2019, according to Zero Carbon Analytics, an international research and analysis group. That tripled to $279bn in 2023. “The path seems to be set, but a lot will depend on political events, starting with those still to happen this year,” Cabral adds.

Most EU voters don’t understand the importance of the European Parliament, and its election every five years is often treated as a protest vote to register discontent with national governments. However, if voters choose to vent that frustration by voting for far-right parties this year, it will very likely mean a halt to EU climate action – and a corresponding fall in investment.

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