Under the magnifying glass: The EU’s leading role in international climate protection

, by Bogdan Mureșan, Guillermo Íñiguez

Under the magnifying glass: The EU's leading role in international climate protection

The changing nature of international affairs

In 2016, the European Union seemed to face a bleak horizon. Internally, it was experiencing the first ever ‘divorce’ of a member state. The United States, the EU’s closest post-war ally and economic partner, was about to see the election of Donald Trump, its first openly Eurosceptic President. To its East, the EU had a more aggressive and assertive Russia, whose leader has declared liberalism ‘obsolete’, was adopting a revisionist stance towards the post-Cold War European security architecture – as the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 had shown.

Europe was, in the words of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, undergoing an “existential crisis”.

Yet, far from witnessing the post-Brexit domino effect some predicted, the past three years have instead strengthened Europe’s voice on the global stage, highlighting the benefits of further integration. The EU has, to a considerable degree, consolidated its “actorness” – the extent to which it has the capacity to exploit opportunity and thus to function effectively as a sui generis global actor. If there is one area where this is the case, it is as a leader on climate policy.

Climate change and its denialists

Days after the Brexit referendum, and against the backdrop of years of modest achievements in previous years, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini presented the EU Global Strategy. The document provided the EU with a new comprehensive narrative, aimed at building a more credible, responsive and cohesive Union on the global stage.

Not only did it reiterate the EU’s support for multilateralism and a rules-based order: in the light of the USA’s geopolitical shift, the Global Strategy called for the Union’s traditional complacency towards Trump to be replaced by strategic autonomy in support of those very values. Recent examples of this shift include renewed talks about a European army, the Iran nuclear deal, but also the Paris Agreement and the broader discussion about climate change.

The Paris Agreement was the product of a hard-fought global consensus on the seriousness of the climate problem. Building upon the Kyoto Protocol, it has at its core the desire to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius. Three years after being ratified, however, this apparent consensus has proved illusory. The global fight against climate change has found another enemy – climate denialism, which gained a powerful ally with the election of Donald Trump.

Despite the USA being one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters, Trump’s desire to erase Obama’s legacy has included the reckless rollback of regulations designed to limit global warming, ignoring the seriousness of its consequences.

EU as a leader in international climate protection?

With the USA abdicating global environmental leadership, it is high time for the EU to exert its ‘normative power’ in the field. The 2016 Global Strategy set the stage for the EU’s efforts in “climate change mitigation and adaptation”, with the latest official report on the first three years of its implementation speaking of the “threat-multiplying effect of climate change, environmental degradation and food and water insecurity”.

In September 2019, in the midst of increasing global popular mobilisation against climate change, two UN summits – a General Assembly and the Climate Action Summit – took place.

Speaking at the Climate Action Summit, European Council President Donald Tusk took the floor to call on the global community to effectively combat the climate emergency, highlighting Europe’s leading role in the area. Despite accounting for a mere 9% of the world’s CO2 emissions, he claimed, the EU provides over 40% of public climate finance and aims to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, an objective already endorsed by a large majority of member states (even if not all of them).

According to Tusk, measures adopted in order to implement the Paris Agreement will include an allocation of at least 25% of the EU’s next long-term budget to climate-related activities. Greater environmental resilience is meant to be achieved through a concerted and complementary effort by EU institutions, member states, the private sector and European citizens. As the world’s leading official development aid (ODA) donor, the EU also provides substantial funding for climate change action. “In 2017 alone, the EU and its member States spent 20 billion euros helping developing countries tackle and adapt to climate change”, Tusk said.

Another interesting measure is the International Platform on Sustainable Finance – aimed at advancing sustainable finance that brings together developed and developing countries, and at helping private investors take advantage of green investment opportunities worldwide. The European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen promised that the European Green Deal, which she is expected to unveil in early 2020, will take centre stage in European politics during her term in office.

Despite the fact that not all member states are on board for the Green Deal, and notwithstanding the rather meek Sibiu Declaration this May, there are signs that the EU is working towards the full implementation of the Paris Agreement. These signs include the ‘European Green Deal’ Commissioner Frans Timmermans’ new executive powers, the Union’s new 2019–2024 Strategic Agenda.

The road ahead

It goes without saying that Europe’s leadership in climate action has to go beyond Donald Tusk’s figures and optimistic rhetoric. Most importantly, perhaps, the EU’s role in combating climate change has to be as symbolic as it is tangible.

The EU has already established itself as a normative power in areas like data protection, the abolition of death penalty or nuclear disarmament. Now, its next priorities should include the full implementation of the Paris Agreement, in order to decisively transition towards green energy and become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The EU’s plan for a competitive low-carbon economy already benefits from the legitimacy conferred by European citizens, with the latest Eurobarometer showing 92% of citizens consider their national emissions targets too low.

Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) makes combating climate change an explicit objective of EU environmental policy. Yet this article should be interpreted broadly.

Despite the gradual decline of the post-war liberal world order, the past few years have shown, in the words of Max Bergmann, that “when [the EU] can act as one on the world stage, it can have an impact”. The only way in which the EU can combat climate change – a global threat – is by ensuring it becomes a normative power in this fight, encouraging action on an international level, and shifting the global discourse away from climate denialism and political indifference.

The importance of assertive action was highlighted at the recent G7 summit, where Macron’s threat to suspend the EU-Mercosur trade deal led Bolsonaro to recognise the Amazon crisis. It will be the job of Josep Borrell, the Union’s next High Representative, to ensure this effort is made on an EU level, with member states adopting a united stance to be defended on the global stage.

As recent global developments have shown, political goodwill may not be enough. If the EU wants to make a difference, it needs explicit powers. Clear steps towards an ever-closer Union – starting with moves towards abandoning the unanimity rule in foreign policy decisions – need to be taken.

This article was written as a part of JEF-Europe’s Faker Fighters programme, featuring trainings on media literacy and media production.

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