EU’s environmental direction at the stake in the upcoming elections

Multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, over 400 million voters Europeans from 28 member states are poised to elect a new Parliament and European Commission President. Given its lead position on climate and energy issues, and under pressure to accept more American fracked fossil gas, their decision will have global ramifications. L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look.

LNG gas will be shiped more frequently to the European Union despite protests

Double emissions: ship with LNG cargo (Public Domain)

Between May 23 and 26, roughly 427 million Europeans across 28 nations will be eligible to vote upon the makeup of the European Parliament (EP), the most democratically rooted of the three branches of the European Union’s government. Held once every five years, by proportional representation, the 751 Parliamentarians ostensibly comprise the European voice in Brussels (although Parliament also meets in Strasbourg, France).

Once installed, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will pass laws proposed by the European Commission, subject to approval by national governments in the EU Council. But overall EU environment and climate policy is really a compromise negotiated between the EP and the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of EU countries. The council, in general, adopts less stringent positions than the Parliament. Thrown into the mix is the more elite, but co-equal, European Commission, whose nominal head is also in contention.

Though the elections for Parliament itself are relatively straight forward, the path to power for the new President or Chief Executive of the European Commission is still evolving. Following recent reforms, Parliament has pledged to force the co-equal European Council to nominate as successor to current President Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg a lead candidate from a winning party in the upcoming election (Though French President Macron and others have publically walked back their support of this idea).

Parliament is the EU’s greatest environmental champion

Since the last elections in 2014, Parliament has generally taken a more aggressive environmental stance by pushing the EU bloc to adopt stricter climate change regulations while charting a continental transition towards a cleaner energy system. The EU has agreed a binding target for 2030 of a 40 percent emissions reduction compared to 1990, as the bloc’s contribution to the Paris Agreement on global climate change, but environmental groups and green lawmakers have said the emissions cut should be steeper.

Broken into factions, the largest contingent in the EP is made up by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) which has 217 seats and ensures an establishment majority by often cooperating with the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 186 seats and the ALDE neo-liberals (which have 68 seats). Spearheading most environmental legislation, and often working with the other larger parties, the Greens/European Free Alliance currently hold a combined 51 seats. But their efforts are often thwarted by the two right-wing, anti-EU groups led by Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Rally which share a combined 78 seats. The rest of the MEPs are further divided between smaller fractions falling all over the political spectrum.

Moreover, in recent months, the EU, particularly the Juncker-led European Commission has buckled under pressure from the Trump Administration to accept much more potentially planet-killing fracked fossil gas shipped as LNG from the U.S., despite new evidence suggesting gas has a worse environmental footprint to the coal it supposedly is displacing. More troubling, even though Parliament has advocated for tighter controls around plastic trash, much of that fracked gas will be used to produce millions more single use plastics, accelerating the widening plastic pollution crisis which is having a devastating impact on marine life (more on this in an upcoming post).

Pushback against weakened environmental protections has mainly come from the strong EPP, S&D and Green/EFA groups. Despite the fracking threat, in March they helped form a majority to call for the EU to become carbon-neutral by 2050—pushing the debate both in Brussels and within national member state capitals. While Germany earlier opposed this idea on the EU level, Chancellor Merkel has vowed that, through her new Climate Cabinet, if a pathway towards neutrality by 2050 can be found, such a plan (both domestically and throughout Europe) would be endorsed before her term expires. However, only the Greens hold a policy against fracking as most parties seem to have bought the propaganda that it’s a bridge fuel from coal to a renewable energy system.

Will the Green Wave reach shore?

Given the growing popularity of the youth-led Friday’s For the Future, the activism of Extinction Rebellion and various anti-coal groups, and further spurred on by terrifying scientific data including recording breaking heat (March 2019 was the second hottest on record), recording breaking carbon accumulations in the atmosphere (now over 415 ppm), the recent IPCC (climate) and IPBES (biodiversity) reports, several polls of potential voters now show that 77% identify global warming as an important criterion. These and other polls project the Greens could nominally increase their power, especially in countries like Belgium, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. That “should mean more progressives in the new Parliament and a strengthened potential kingmaker role,” said Patrick ten Brink, policy director of the European Environmental Bureau.

As reported by CLEW, recently a Yougov poll of 8,000 people across eight member states found that voters feel climate and environment protection are the biggest challenges for the future of the European Union. As commissioned by the newspaper Die Welt and other European publications, 34 percent of participants said that climate action was the biggest challenge, followed by 32 percent who saw migration as the most crucial problem. Across the eight countries (France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium), migration came first and climate second with 29 percent. Similarly, in another survey commissioned by environmental NGO WWF, found that climate change and environmental pollution also came in third.

However, many fear that if enough right wing and nationalist voters show up to polls and elect their candidates, climate and environmental policies would instead be further slowed as the centrist parties are weakened. These right wing parties are drawing strength by whipping up a narrative fed off public discontent with environmental policies, as expressed through public demonstrations like the gilets jaunes, or yellow vest, movement in France, which began last October as a protest against a tax on diesel fuel, as well as Germany’s AfD.

Regardless of what the polls suggest, recent national and state elections throughout the EU, show that the centrist parties are the most vulnerable. As income equality and immigration fears continue to rise along with CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the voting public is clearly becoming more polarized.




L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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