If once a peace project, the mission for Europe today is a safe ecological transition—the Green Deal the antidote to a malaise apparent long before the pandemic.
The European Green Deal has come under renewed attack from critics who see it as a financial boondoggle which the European Union can no longer afford in the wake of Covid-19. Yet if done right, the initiative can promote a robust economic recovery, ward off the climate crisis, heal north-south divisions in Europe and solidify youth buy-in to the EU project.
As Covid-19 fatalities begin to recede, European governments are now reckoning with a disease which has ravaged the continent in more ways than one. And there are concerns that, amidst the infighting, the pandemic could ‘break the EU’.
Frustrations are at a peak. The economic, debt and migration crises of the past decade had already left a bad taste in the mouth in many countries.
The EU’s early response to the pandemic, though now improving, did little to abate these grudges. Italians, once solidly behind the EU, are now evenly split on remaining. And the economic recession ahead could lead to another lost generation of young people and a corresponding drop in confidence in the EU project, should that fail to combat the challenges important to them.
The Green Deal, which aims to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050, could go a long way towards resolving geographical divisions and promoting economic growth. The environment and climate-change ministers of 17 member states have indeed called on the EU to adopt the plan as a framework for a comprehensive Covid-19 recovery.
They note that this is an opportunity to develop a bold response that incorporates investments in areas such as ‘sustainable mobility’ and ‘renewable energy’ to help stimulate economies, create jobs and protect biodiversity. A green deal could also prevent the economically and socially devastating effects of climate change forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A continuing stumbling block has been opposition from coal-dependent and automobile-oriented central- and eastern-European (CEE) countries which have called for the EU to abandon the initiative altogether and for the Emissions Trading Scheme to be scrapped. These countries will be open to compromise, however, including long-overdue economic reforms.
Economic contraction of 5-10 per cent is forecast in Slovakia, for example, on account of the coronavirus shutdown. But to win backing, the Green Deal needs to be structured to support long-stifled research and development in CEE economies and promote their industrial diversification.
To this end, the Just Transition Fund should be significantly expanded from the €100 billion envisaged, to ensure that the Green Deal is socially viable and fair to those displaced from employment. And the proposed transformation of the European Investment Bank into a ‘climate bank’ should be adequately financed, to ensure new value chains and sustainable projects can emerge.
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The German and Dutch governments understand their countries have benefited from the single market and will want to ensure that it is politically sustainable. And the Green Deal, attached to Covid-19 recovery, may prove less divisive for domestic populations than ‘eurobonds’ and other debt-sharing instruments.
Surging approval ratings for EU political leaders will provide governments with the necessary political capital to compromise and allocate funding for Green Deal priorities. EU financial aid for the countries worst hit by Covid-19 is endorsed by more than two thirds of Germans. While such fiscal transfers were unthinkable during prior crises, ‘Angela Merkel could sell the Germans just about anything at the moment’.
Turnout among young people (24 and under) reached 42 per cent in the 2019 European Parliament elections—up from 28 per cent in 2014. This cohort is far removed from the postwar and cold-war milieus which were foundational for the EU and its raison d’être.
But young people do recognise the need for a common resolve to address problems that don’t respect nation-state borders—especially climate change. A total of 45 per cent mentioned climate as an incentive to vote in 2019. Youth support helped propel green-aligned candidates to historic electoral success, including a rebound in parts of central and eastern Europe.
More than rhetoric, action is now needed to sustain and reinforce this buy-in from the youth coming of age during the ‘Fridays for Future’ strikes. Failure to take decisive action, by contrast, could lead to a permanent loss of confidence in the EU project and the ability of young people to make a difference within it.
The last decade—defined by political, financial and migration crises—has been acrimonious for the EU. But a ‘man on the moon‘ mission approach to the transition, taking in everything from pesticide-free agriculture to electronic product passports and recyclable packaging, is the antidote to the economic and social malaise it is facing. It would give the continent new purpose, in the same spirit of co-operation on which the union was founded.
Shane Markowitz is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University and an associate fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, where he conducts research on the future of Europe.