In our ‘Europe2025’ series, Kirsty Hughes argues that a Green New Deal can gel the domestic and neighbourhood policies of the union.
Back in early 2016, although the outlook for the European Union was uncertain, there was a moment when—some hoped, if things went well—the UK would vote to stay in the EU and Hillary Clinton would win the US presidential election, followed by Marine le Pen losing the French presidential ballot in 2017. With ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump, however, only Emmanuel Macron remained a candle in the dark by the autumn of that year.
Three years later, as the EU looks forward to a new five-year term, it’s still possible—despite, or even because of, Boris Johnson taking over as UK prime minister—that Brexit could yet be defeated in a second referendum. And Trump might lose next year. Yet, equally, UK politics may carry on imploding, driven by the chaotic development of English nationalism. Trump’s destabilising of geopolitics and geo-economics may continue (and for sure will have done more damage by the end of next year).
Meanwhile, the EU’s other big challenges—from the rule of law and populism to climate change, tackling migration, lack of solidarity, inequality, reform of the eurozone and more—will doubtless remain for much or all of the coming half-decade.
Causes for hope
Yet there are causes for hope too. And, despite Ursula von der Leyen’s weak mandate from the European Parliament as incoming president of the European Commission, the commission, the European Council and the parliament now have the chance to develop an overarching new strategy to drive the EU forward in the face of these challenges. Climate change has moved rapidly up the agenda and growing political support for green parties across many EU member states, not least in Germany, is already shifting public and policy debate and concerns.
Support for a Green New Deal is growing in the EU and in the US. The challenge for the EU is to take this on board and make it the centrepiece of its strategy for the coming five years. The risk is that the union will move too little, holding on to its old, cautious approach to industrial strategy and sustainable development.
An innovative and comprehensive new strategy must not be one that retreats to protectionism and old-style ‘picking winners’. But it mustn’t stick with an equally old-style emphasis on infrastructure and support for research, with all other tools labelled as ‘interfering in free markets’. Faced with global competition—not least from China and the US—and a continuing rise in global temperatures, a radical new approach needs to be drawn up.
A major Green New Deal strategy must also put social and economic inclusion and tackling inequality at its heart. The austerity years since the global and eurozone economic crises have left a damaging legacy.
The EU has to show it now puts people first, across all member states, not leaving inequality or lack of prospects for young people to national governments alone. And if the EU, in the face of a growth slowdown or recession in the coming five years, resorts to austerity again, then hopes for an inclusive Green New Deal, showing new purpose and renewed solidarity within and across the EU, will surely falter.
Against a backdrop of shifting global Realpolitik, the EU faces calls to step up its global strategy and strengthen its foreign and security policy. Certainly, a major shift, with a transformative Green New Deal at its centre, cannot be effected in isolation from global developments, on climate change, trade, development, human rights and security. But the EU should start by looking to its wider region and neighbourhood, where many concerns and challenges exist.
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It’s easier to list the challenges—from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to a Brexit UK, to an authoritarian and volatile Turkey, to the middle east—than to indicate the solutions. There is much to keep the EU busy.
But the union could use a new green strategy to bring in some of its neighbourhood, in more constructive ways, starting where it has the more straightforward relationships—with Norway and Switzerland among others. Instead of letting the EU-Swiss relationship become more problematic, not least with the side-impact of Brexit upon it, the EU should seek to bring neighbouring countries in, as partners in its Green New Deal, and look for ways to do so with more challenging neighbours, such as the UK and Turkey.
In the context of a Green New Deal, the EU could find it easier to face up to its own demographic challenges and start to treat migration as an opportunity—in many ways a necessity—rather than a threat. Nor will the EU find it easy to fight to defend multilateralism and global institutions, such as the UN, if it is not defending rights at home and in its region, including those of migrants and asylum-seekers.
The EU’s reluctance to move ahead with enlargement to the western Balkans—and its divisions over this—does not presage a confident EU in its region, let alone in the world. It’s time for progress here too. The start of a new five-year term is a moment to look for renewed confidence, not more defensiveness.
Picking up the pieces
In the short term, the UK’s politics look likely to become ever more unstable—one more challenge in the EU’s region. The bizarre accession of Johnson as prime minister looks to many in the EU, and in the UK, like the nadir (so far) of Britain’s unfolding political implosion.
If Johnson drives through a no-deal Brexit, picking up the pieces will be a bigger job for the UK than the EU. But the union’s leaders need to do what they can to support democratic, and pro-EU, dynamics within the UK (as Donald Tusk did as council president in many ways). In the end, the same three scenarios remain: a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit with the withdrawal agreement or no Brexit.
The UK is surely heading for an election within the next year but whether that could be within the next three months—that is to say, before or after Johnson’s October 31st Brexit deadline—is an open question. This certainly looks like a crucial period.
There are also ways to relate constructively to different parts of the UK, even as its self-inflicted turmoil continues. If Brexit happens and Johnson stays in power, then support for independence in Scotland could rise sharply. The EU will stay neutral on that—if perhaps more positive on the chances of an independent Scotland acceding to the EU than it was in 2014 (should there be a second independence referendum in the next five years).
But Scotland has, in many ways (and despite the North Sea oil and gas sector), a very strong, constructive, climate-change and sustainable-energy strategy—likewise on human rights. And so the EU, through its range of policies and networks, can find ways to engage with more constructive parts of this awkward state, rather than just putting the whole of the UK in the ‘nuisance’ category.
In the end, solidarity must be at the heart of the next five years. Fragmentation and division in the EU, over migration, rule-of-law challenges, eurozone reform and more, have not served the union well. Solidarity cannot be rebuilt by decree. But placing a Green New Deal at the centre of the EU’s policies, despite upsetting a range of vested interests, may provide a route to creating new commitment and buy-in—even while dealing more strongly, not less, with fundamental challenges such as those posed by Hungary and Poland on the rule of law.
The EU’s own divisions will not suddenly disappear and differentiation can and surely must be part of a renewed dynamism. But differentiation can only be part of the answer alongside finding strategic routes to building solidarity and commitment to core policies.
It will be a crucial five years—ambition, confidence and determination will be vital.