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17 September 2021

Dave Keating

Opinion: Europeans want climate action. Their governments are blocking it.

Ursula von der Leyen used her 2021 State of the European Union address to urge urgent climate action, but EU capitals will likely deflate the ambition of her proposal over the coming months – and escape scrutiny for doing so.

Speaking at her second annual State of the European Union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said this summer’s extreme weather events should drive home for lawmakers that we are already seeing the effects of climate change with our own eyes.

“And if we don’t believe our own eyes, we only have to follow the science,” she told members of the European Parliament (MEPs). She noted that the UN IPCC report published in August, “leaves no doubt: climate change is man-made, but since it is man-made, we can do something about it”. She urged the lawmakers to quickly pass her ‘Fit for 55‘ proposals to overhaul EU climate and energy legislation to get to a 55% emissions reduction by 2030. “I count on both Parliament and member states to keep the package and to keep the ambition together,” said von der Leyen.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her 2021 State of the European Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. (Photo by European Parliament)

Von Der Leyen was preaching to the choir as she spoke to the Parliament in Strasbourg. There is little risk of MEPs watering down the legislation. However, it must also get national government approval in the EU Council – and as the saying goes, the Council is where good EU legislation goes to die.

The pattern is simple: whatever the Commission proposes, the Parliament tries to make it more ambitious, the Council less. The Council has consistently killed attempts to green the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), significantly reign in car emissions, or force buildings to be more energy efficient. In the ‘Fit for 55’ package, at-risk elements include a carbon border tax, pricing aviation emissions and ending fuel subsidies.

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Unlike MEPs, national governments are the ones that will actually have to implement EU legislation – and they would often rather not create extra work for themselves (or, as they see it, they have a better sense of what will and will not work on the ground).

The other reason for dilution is national governments have a natural instinct to preserve their own power, and they are suspicious of legislation they think might transfer more power to Brussels. The instinct to block has only become more pronounced of late. Formerly routine regulatory decisions are increasingly bumped up from ministers to heads of state, where they are inevitably politicised. Poland has vetoed climate decisions several times over the past ten years (even when Warsaw should not technically have the ability to do so).

Most frustratingly, national governments often water down EU legislation simply because they can do so without facing criticism. Even though it is the most powerful political institution in Europe, the public and national media have little insight into the Council’s workings.

Young Europeans are “a generation with a conscience who are pushing us to go further and faster to tackle the climate crisis”, said von der Leyen in her speech. However, while citizens closely monitor national climate decisions, the higher-impact EU decisions are taken behind closed doors. It is easier to kill a potentially unpopular law in Brussels than at home. It is telling that Parliament, the most transparent EU institution, is the most ambitious on climate action.


The problems with the Council have been detailed in a new book by Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, The Scent of Wild Animals. In it, she argues that the Council tries to remain as opaque as possible, evading scrutiny from the very young Europeans Von der Leyen referred to in her State of the Union speech. The Council redacts the names of countries in its minutes, preventing citizens from knowing the positions of their own governments. It is an institution shrouded in secrecy – and that is how national governments like it.

In many ways the Commission is part of the problem. Although it was set up to hold national governments to account, the Commission has increasingly become a tool of the Council. It now consults the biggest member states before a proposal is even tabled. This happened with the ‘Fit for 55’ package, Commission sources say, with the result that it was watered down even before it saw the light of day. According to in ‘t Veld, von der Leyen has amplified this trend. “You can see with von der Leyen, she can smell where the power is,” she says.

The Commission has also become timid in making sure legislation is implemented and enforced. Since 2004, there has been a steep decline in the number of infringement procedures launched against national governments for violating EU law, according to research by the University of Copenhagen. The ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, where national governments looked the other way as automakers cheated on pollution limits, is a prime example, in ‘t Veld says. “The Commission gives priority to its relations with member state governments, the US administration, or big industry over the interests of EU citizens.”

The Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ proposal remains an ambitious and robust package. There is no reason to doubt von der Leyen’s personal commitment and belief in the need for dramatic action.

However, it is not enough for the president to implore lawmakers to maintain the package’s ambition. Pressure must be brought to bear. National media must do a better job covering the EU legislative process to tell citizens what their governments do behind the closed doors of the Council. President von der Leyen must name and shame countries who seek to water down climate action, not all of whom are in Europe’s East. The country she knows best, her native Germany, has been one of the most frequent roadblocks to climate progress at EU level, such as when her former boss Angela Merkel killed a deal on car CO2 limits. The Commission president at the time, José Manuel Barroso, did not utter so much as a peep in protest.

Von der Leyen can be a different kind of Commission president, one who defends the interests of EU citizens over the narrow interests of their governments. If she really cares about the young people she was extolling this week, she will fight for them to make sure the level of ambition in her proposals makes it out of the Council unscathed.

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