Double or quits for climate president Von der Leyen

William Todts — May 31, 2024


Much like the weather across Northern Europe, environmentalists across Europe appear gloomy as elections loom.

Cast your mind back to 2019 and the last EU elections. Young people were marching, progressive candidates made real gains and green policy was catapulted to the top of the political agenda. This was when the European Green Deal was born.

Now, as Ms Von der Leyen seeks reelection, there is pushback. Farmers are protesting across Europe in reaction to nature laws, while a CDU - Le Pen - Meloni coalition is agitating against a cornerstone of the green deal: the phase out of combustion engine cars. Oil companies and airlines like Lufthansa are attacking green fuel quotas, while ports are calling on the EU to row back on the newly introduced carbon tax for shipping.

Are we set for a major rollback of Europe’s green agenda as Europeans go to the polls in June? And what is really at stake?

I’m a proud European but I don't think the outcome of these elections will seal the fate of our planet. For that we must look to China - responsible for 90% of the world’s additional emissions since 2015. Or the US.

I do believe our standing as a global regulator and industrial continent is at stake.

Take the 2035 cars rule. Imagine the next Commission president announcing it was all a joke and Europe actually wants its carmakers to prioritise diesel and petrol cars running on biofuels.

Consider the context for such a statement. In China EV sales just hit 44%. The US is spending $188 billion on electric vehicles. Europe spent €80 billion on e-mobility since 2021 alone.

That’s bearing fruit. EU carmakers already produce fine EVs - I’m very happily driving one since 2020 - and will soon offer €20,000 to €25,000 entry-level vehicles. If the far right gets their way, we would abandon these efforts and hand the market to the Chinese.

The same is true across the economy. Yes, we can scrap our hydrogen and e-kerosene targets only to ruin our electrolyser manufacturers. We can water down carbon pricing, only to deprive ourselves of the revenues needed to conduct industrial policies. We can slow down renewables investment, only to find ourselves more dependent on expensive, imported gas.

Industry understands this is nonsense. In all of my conversations with industry leaders, following the Antwerp declaration, the conclusion was the same: “there is no way back”.

So there is cause for some optimism. Five questions will determine what happens next.

1. The Green Deal was a project backed by the centre right EPP, centrist liberals and centre left social democrats. Will these parties still have a majority after June 9th? So far the polls suggest they would. That in itself would beat the gloomy expectations created by months of negative green press coverage.

2. The EU Commission president gets appointed by our heads of state. Will Ursula von der Leyen (VdL) get the support of Macron, Scholz, Sanchez, Tusk and others? So far discussions are more focused on who gets what post serving VdL, rather than who could replace her.

3. There is no majority possible without the Social Democrats. Will the S&D prioritise the Green Deal? After some hesitation they put forward Teresa Ribera, Spain’s formidable Ecological Transition minister, to become Europe’s next climate and energy czar.

4. Will VdL defend her legacy? Or will she opportunistically change course? In theClean Transition Dialogues she was very clear: climate and energy remain my priority, the laws we adopted must be implemented. Now help us understand how we make this transformation a success for Europe’s industry.

Finally, if reappointed, will VDL prioritise mobilising the financial firepower to turn the Green Deal into an economic and industrial project? There is talk of new joint borrowing but also of bringing forward future innovation fund revenues. The ECB too could help by lowering interest rates for green projects.

I believe the answer to each of these questions will be yes. Sunny times may yet await us.

But there’s only one way to be sure. Vote.

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