Cost of living fears set scene for tough climate debates a year before 2024 EU vote
One year from now, citizens from across the European Union will head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament in the biggest transnational vote in the world. The 27-member union has long been considered a leader in global efforts to combat climate change as it aims to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050 through its Green Deal strategy. However, the ambitious plans are increasingly affecting voters’ day-to-day lives, making them harder to implement as more people worry that they lose out due to the changes. In addition, the energy crisis pushed up prices for consumers and put leaders under pressure to shield businesses and households. This sets the scene for a turbulent year for European climate policy ahead of the elections on 6-9 June 2024.
European decision makers seem torn between seeing the need to speed up the implementation of the Green Deal – the EU’s sustainable growth strategy towards climate neutrality, which was championed by the current executive under Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – and shielding citizens from the negative effects of the transition.
Citizens themselves continue to worry about climate change. Its effects can increasingly be felt also in Europe, hitting a continent so far badly prepared to deal with the consequences, highlighted throughout 2022 by rising temperatures, record droughts, wildfires and floods and a winter that left “heat records and skiers’ hearts broken” as the UN's World Metereological Organisation put.
However, an EU survey shows that the energy crisis has catapulted cost of living and supply security to the people’s list of worries, together with concerns over the international situation as a whole.
The European elections take place at a critical moment for global efforts to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Europe and the world are only slowly emerging from an energy crisis – fuelled by Russia’s war against Ukraine. The jury is still out on whether it has created another obstacle to decarbonisation or actually speeds up Europe’s move to net-zero emissions by 2050, as governments emphasise the double benefit of expanding renewables: mitigating climate change while decreasing energy dependence.
In the run-up to the UN climate change conference COP28 in Dubai, the European Union and countries with more or less ambitious plans to phase out fossil fuels find themselves opposite those whose business model continues to rely on their extraction and who wish only to “phase out fossil fuel emissions” – betting on technologies to capture and store carbon to reach climate targets.
Underlying all of this is the need for Europe to reposition itself, as the geopolitical deck of cards is being reshuffled, where sun and wind-rich countries could emerge as new major energy players, and regions rich in critical raw materials have become highly sought-after partners.
“Pause” green EU regulation until election?
Over the past three and a half years, the EU has been busy with a complete overhaul of its climate policy. Calling it “Europe’s man on the moon moment,” the then-new Commission president von der Leyen in 2019 presented her plan to make the EU the world’s first “climate-neutral” continent by 2050. Since then, a raft of legislative reforms, including a more ambitious 2030 climate target, a stricter emissions trading system (EU ETS) and the 2035 end-date for new petrol and diesel cars, have been decided by the EU institutions. However, other elements of the Green Deal have yet to be proposed or remain stuck in negotiations, like higher renewables targets.
It is uncertain whether the EU is able to finish most of the Green Deal agenda as the current executive and legislative bodies enter the final stretch of their term. The elections are still one year away, but observers agree that they are already casting a shadow over EU policy making.
“With the next European Parliament elections set for 2024, some leaders and lawmakers are concerned about antagonising workers and voters with new binding legislation and restrictive measures and are urging the 27-nation bloc to hit the brakes,” wrote Samuel Petrequin for Associated Press.
We don't just want to be a green market, but to produce green products on our own soil. We've already passed a lot of regulations in Europe, more than any of our neighbours. [...] I'm calling for a European regulatory pause.
Traditionally, the European Parliament has been known for taking a progressive stance on ambitious climate policy. However, with the election one year away, lawmakers from the largest group in the European Parliament – the conservative EPP – recently pushed back against planned legislation to restore Europe’s natural ecosystems, a move that Green group parliamentarian Jutta Paulus called “short-sighted political campaigning.”
French president Emmanuel Macron infamously called for a “pause” in European regulation with the aim to protect companies in competition with those in countries with less strict environmental rules, or more favourable conditions, for example through the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). “We don't just want to be a green market, but to produce green products on our own soil,” he said. “We've already passed a lot of regulations in Europe, more than any of our neighbours,” the French leader added. “I'm calling for a European regulatory pause.”
However, Commission president von der Leyen said “hundreds of proposals,” not only on the Green Deal, were still open in Parliament, so “a lot of work is still ahead of us.” She cautioned that the EU had to look at the “absorption capacity” for the legislative work over the coming weeks and months. Commission vice president Frans Timmermans did not rule out that some of the executive’s remaining proposals would be left in the drawer unfinished.
Politicians across the continent are set to keep a close eye on people’s worries about climate policy. Especially when it concerns the cost of living, policies like carbon pricing or the move to climate-friendly heating have become a new line of conflict in Europe. French president Macron in 2018 was faced with the “yellow vest” protests over high energy prices and fuel taxes, while Germany’s ruling coalition this year has encountered public backlash against plans to ban new oil and gas heaters, which confronts people with higher cost of climate-friendly boilers.
These public disputes often mean that far-right populist parties profit. In 2019, the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party – formerly known as the Front National – finished in the European vote, with more than one in five voters saying they had chosen RN to express their disagreement with Macron’s handling of the yellow vests protests. In Germany, the heating debate helped push the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to 18 percent in nationwide polls, several points clear of the Greens.
Cost-of-living crisis likely still be ongoing next year – researcher
Commissioner Timmermans strongly advocates for making climate a key issue in the 2024 election. “I believe that the Green Deal, the climate crisis and the threat of ecocide must be the subject of a Europe-wide election campaign,” Timmermans told Table.Media. “These crises cannot be solved within five years of a Green Deal.” He said the Commission would make a proposal for EU-wide greenhouse gas reduction target for 2040, which so far does not exist.
Peter Liese, a German conservative member of the European Parliament, told Clean Energy Wire that “evaluating the 2040 emissions targets will be the next major policy the EU is looking at after the elections.”
However, it remains to be seen whether parties make this a campaign issue that voters can relate to.
While worries about climate change were a key element in deciding the 2019 European elections and they helped deliver major gains for Green parties in several countries, current polls show that inflation, high energy prices and cost of living in general could move voters next year.
“I would not expect climate and energy to be stand-alone topics for these elections, because we have rarely seen any national elections that were decided along this issue,” says Laura-Kristine Krause, managing director of More in Common Germany, an initiative that researches social cohesion and regularly surveys people in several European countries.
Krause says that campaigners for the 2024 elections will have to show how energy and climate policy is woven into other aspects that Europeans care about. “I assume that the cost-of-living crisis will still be ongoing next year,” she told Clean Energy Wire.
The European elections are mainly national elections for the European Parliament, instead of truly European elections.
Analysts point out that a lot could change before the campaigns start in earnest next year. “It's (about) one year to go, so as we did not expect the war (in Ukraine), as we did not expect COVID, there might be some unexpected developments in the next year,” Péter Krekó, executive director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, told Euronews.
Several representatives from parties in the European Parliament told EurActiv that they see the Green Deal and climate change as key topics they want to push in the campaign. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that citizens agree. They named action against climate change as one of the top four priorities they want the European Parliament to tackle, only surpassed by the fight against poverty and public health.
However, ultimately, voters must be convinced at the national level. For now, the elections “are mainly national elections for the European Parliament, instead of truly European elections,” says More in Common’s Krause.
While EU citizens, who move to a neighbouring member state, can choose to vote there under certain conditions, it is still mostly Polish citizens who vote Polish politicians into the European Parliament, Latvians who vote for Latvians, and Portuguese citizens deciding who of their fellow citizens is sent to Brussels. This means that twenty-seven very different election campaigns firmly rooted in the national contexts will decide the make-up of the next European Parliament. Many EU member states will also hold national elections in 2024 (parliamentary votes in Austria, Croatia and Belgium, and presidential elections in Slovakia).
The European votes are so-called second-order elections, which are viewed as less important than the national elections. Traditionally, turnout is much lower than in domestic votes, and had decreased steadily until an upwards turn in 2019, when about half of those eligible actually cast their ballot. A recent EU survey indicates that turnout at the next election could be higher still: two-thirds of citizens (67%) said they are likely to vote next year, when 58 percent said so in 2018.
Election rules also differ. There are some common provisions, for example the principle of proportional representation, but the exact electoral system is up to the individual member states. In 2019, Belgium was one of five countries where voting was compulsory, the minimum age of candidates in Germany was 18, in Romania 23 and in Poland 21, and the electoral threshold ranged from none to 5 percent. In addition, Europeans do not all cast their ballot on the same day. Elections in 2024 take place over four days from 6 to 9 June.
The European Parliament is trying to harmonise national rules and further Europeanise the election, but member states in the EU Council are critical and their necessary unanimous decision is unlikely.
Still, Europe’s reaction to EU-wide crises over the past years has the potential to make the 2024 elections a bit more European, Krause says. “We have yet to see whether all of the events happening in Europe, such as the Russian war in Ukraine, inflation or the increased need for a European energy strategy, will lead to a more European mindset of voters and of campaigners.”
After the vote: Next executive a black box
If Ursula von der Leyen, who has been a driving force behind the Green Deal, will run again is still not clear, and another term will remain uncertain even once the election results are in. The formation of a new European Commission is a complicated process entailing a power play between member state governments, political camps and the newly formed legislative body as a whole. The Commission, consisting of 26 commissioners and led by its president, is the Union’s main executive body, proposing major policy, and drafting and enforcing EU law.
Due to the uncertain government-building process, there is a high level of unpredictability in who will lead the next European Commission, and even more so regarding the policy direction and focus of the new leadership. However, it seems inevitable that the next EU leaderships will make the transition to climate neutrality a key element of its term in office, which coincides with a crucial moment for global climate action: scenarios by scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that limiting warming to around 1.5°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43 percent by 2030. The next Commission’s term is set to end in 2029.