The European Green Deal rests on the collective commitment of the 27 member states. The fate of the renewable-energy directive shows the scale of that challenge.
As with her compatriot, mentor and supporter, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, nicknamed the Klimakanzlerin, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, needs to become Europe’s ‘climate president’ for the ambition at the heart of her mission—to lead the biggest European transformation since the industrial revolution—to succeed. Yet while Merkel’s political acumen earned her the title which now sees German taxpayers funding her energy transition, von der Leyen is still to deliver on her promise of a defining moment for Europe.
The European Union’s first female commission president needs astuteness to manage the political fissures certain to emerge from seeing through the massive societal changes in 27 countries envisaged in her European Green Deal. It is the commission’s way to dream up big goals realised in member states.
Von der Leyen’s monumental challenge to get all member states on board her trip to ‘the moon’—as she describes the deal—was already evident when she was in one of Merkel’s cabinets. While federal labour minister in 2009, the then commission president, José Manuel Barroso, was seeing through a rough start to implementation of the renewable-energy directive. Threats of legal action and daily fines of up to €133,229 were required to induce Ireland, Cyprus, Austria and Poland to comply.
The directive was central to the EU’s earlier ambitions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, enhance renewable-energy consumption by the same measure and improve energy efficiency. Each member state was handed a binding target, in terms of the share of renewable energy in gross final consumption—ranging from 49 per cent in Sweden to 10 per cent in Malta.
As of 2019, results show the EU just under 2 per cent off its overall target and success is ensured after final data are recorded. But the commission has long argued that while ‘the EU as a whole is on course to meet its 2020 targets, some Member States will need to make additional efforts …’
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What is unclear is just how von der Leyen will set about decarbonising the European economy by 2050, which will require regulatory changes in more than the 14 states that have already reached their targets. Estonia, Sweden and Latvia—which had a 40 per cent target—were among the first. The EU has been heaping praise on them, along with Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Czechia and Cyprus. Trailing however are the Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, Ireland and Poland—with targets in the teens—and Luxembourg with 11 per cent. Contrary to expectations in Brussels, the directive has done little to induce substantive regulatory changes towards decarbonisation in failing states.
One less headache
At least in this sense the United Kingdom is now one less headache for von der Leyen, given its unflattering record. In 2010, only 2.2 per cent of energy consumed there was from renewable sources and by 2019 this had risen only to 12.3 per cent. Short of its 15 per cent target, the now ex-member state keeps company with Slovenia, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Malta, Luxembourg and Poland—but, unlike all bar Ireland, the UK has massive renewable-energy resources. A commission advising the UK government on sustainable development reported in 2005 that the country had ‘some of the best wind resources in Europe, if not the world’.
All this underminesthe promise by the current prime minister and Leave advocate, Boris Johnson, of a ‘green industrial revolution’—more political posturing in preparation for COP 26 in Glasgow in November than candid climate ambition. The performance on the directive shows however that Johnson’s predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, also did not share the EU’s climate aspirations nor consider EU rules to be serious. In fact, May’s government frequently changed the arrangements for feed-in-tariffs to foster investments by users in renewable energy—sending signals of uncertainty and instability.
Political hyperbole on climate action is in vogue but some politicians have earned room for rhetoric. Such is Estonia’s new prime minister, Kaja Kallas, who commits her government to ‘a very clear change in policies when it comes to issues like climate policy’—including to the phasing out of shale-oil production and overall carbon neutrality by 2050, Estonia having been the first country to reach its 2020 renewable-energy target.
The next goal is to reach the new EU target to consume 32 per cent of energy from renewable sources within nine years. The immediate trick for von der Leyen is to collect fines from the likes of Ireland, second only to the Netherlands in falling short of its 2020 target, while expecting future co-operation.
To have increased renewable-energy consumption from under 10 per cent in 2004 to just above 19 per cent is remarkable. But to land the Green Deal on the moon is an entirely different feat, considering the massive transformation required of all sectors—not just energy. Von der Leyen needs fully to anticipate its impacts and manage the complex and conflicting conditions in all member states.
This requires more than making referrals to the European Court of Justice or levying fines. Von der Leyen will need to motivate recalcitrant national leaders towards the goal. Many of the men who preceded her failed to achieve this harmony out of an inchoate collection of national energy policies.
Michael Davies-Venn is a public-policy analyst and political-communications expert, based in Berlin, focused on issues of global governance, including climate change and human rights. He is a guest researcher in the Ethics of the Anthropocene Programme at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.