The European Green Deal faces a fork in the road—between the politics of hope and the politics of fear—as the June elections loom.
This year was a turning point for the European Green Deal, where hope turned into frustration and deep concern. The next risks becoming a tipping point—where despondency and fear prevail over need and ambition. But it does not have to be so. In 2024 delivering the Green Deal and putting in place a renewed agenda of hope is essential—not just to deliver on promises and address the triple climate, biodiversity and pollution crises, but to embrace the many opportunities for transformative action.
Regulation and investment will catalyse new jobs and skills. Jobs in renewable energies amounted to 13.7 million worldwide in 2022 and are bound to increase significantly. At the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, 130 countries committed to tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030 and doubling average annual energy-efficiency gains to 4 per cent. Regulation and investments will also lead to energy and resource savings, learning and innovation, enhanced competitiveness, resilience and regenerative economic development, improved wellbeing and advances on justice.
Dozens of Green Deal files remain to be discussed in the Council of the EU, voted on in the European Parliament and subjected to ‘trilogue’ negotiations with also the European Commission. The soil and forest monitoring laws can create a basis for recognising and promoting the long-term benefits and viability of these ecosystems—whose health and resilience is essential for society and biodiversity, as well as sectors of the economy. The trilogues on green claims can decide what type of (dis)information citizens will face and what they can trust. The law on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals can help users make educated decisions about hazardous chemicals. Ecodesign decisions and the directive on the energy performance of buildings can save households energy and income and address fuel security. The air we breathe can be made safer through an ambitious revision of the ambient air-quality directive.
All these files aim to better the lives of people and planet. Yet these and others have faced a backlash in 2023, from both the parliament and the council—often with seriously questionable tactics and disinformation campaigns which undermine faith in policy-making and trust in EU institutions while eroding democracy. Key files have even been cast aside before launch, such as the much-needed law on sustainable food systems and revision of the ‘REACH’ chemicals regulation.
Responsibility on Belgium
Belgium takes up the mantle of the council presidency on January 1st. It has the responsibility of finalising many of the remaining Green Deal files, with only January and February fully open for trilogues and a limited set of priorities in March, as the elections to the parliament loom in June. What Belgium does not complete will remain for the Hungarian and possibly Polish six-month presidencies to finish, together with the new parliament and commission, with a risk of considerable delay. The responsibility on this founding member of the EU is considerable.
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The Belgian presidency will also host an informal meeting of ministers in mid-January discussing just transition, resilience and ecosystem adaptation, and the circular economy. Justice and people need to be at the heart of the transformation. With insufficient climate mitigation, it only makes sense to build up our defences against the climate crisis. And we need to embrace the win-win logic of investing in circularity: energy and resource savings, access to materials, market creation, resilience to price fluctuations and reduced environmental impacts. The environmental agenda is a social agenda, an agenda of security and an agenda of opportunity.
This is too often ignored by those undermining the files, too willing to sacrifice the future—even of those they purportedly represent—for short-term political point scoring. If the onus is on Belgium responsibility falls on all member states, given their influence on council positions and trilogues.
We should not take European democracy for granted. Recent studies show that consistent support for democracy is decreasing among European citizens across the continent and has been doing so for several years. As we are approaching the elections, where Europeans hold the power to guide the path for good or bad for the continent as a whole, this trend is alarming.
Democracy itself is in crisis, with ill-intentioned outside influence and disinformation attempting to manipulate voters to vote against their interests or not make their voices heard at all. Recent elections have shown how the far right is exploiting and propagating an often-constructed atmosphere of fear to heighten feelings of disempowerment and alienation, lowering trust in democratic institutions and hope for the future. Citizens who are made to feel that democracy is not working for them and what they care about are unsurprisingly not motivated to participate in democratic processes.
This is what the far right wants citizens to feel—it wins when others do not turn out. For the future of Europe, it is essential that the elections are won with facts, not lies—and with meaningful debate that accepts diversity and nuance and avoids a descent into polarising ‘culture wars’.
The EU has done a lot for its citizens, often without being given credit for it and with many unaware of its roles and its benefits: improving air and water quality, pushing the repairability of products, saving households energy through building and product standards, protecting and promoting access to nature, advancing global ambition on biodiversity, climate and plastic pollution, and so on. The EU has the potential to do a lot more but it is crucial that its citizens choose to participate in European democracy and vote with their conscience—not out of fear.
That choice will define the new parliament and the new commission president and, relatedly, the political priorities for the succeeding five years. It is too early to say whether Ursula von der Leyen will be granted a second term as president. And it is too early to know what the new political guidelines will prioritise.
Will there be a continuation of the Green Deal—a visionary European pact for our common future, associated with a new social contract, where citizens are right to trust in government and co-create the future? Or will there only be a ‘Green Deal-light’ focus on implementation of particular measures and a few new files but otherwise firefighting the crisis while missing opportunities for a system change? Or will it be an entirely different agenda that ignores climate justice and embraces deregulation, backtracking on health and wellbeing, pollution and biodiversity and thereby delaying the necessary response until reality insists it be taken seriously?
This is the stark choice facing Europe’s political leaders, those campaigning for the new parliament and the citizens voting for them. Their decisions in 2024 will define the decade—and decide our future.
Patrizia Heidegger also contributed to this piece, part of our series on a ‘manifesto’ for 2024