One day after Ursula von der Leyen unveiled her European Green Deal, the EU commission president has already been dealt a setback after EU prime ministers failed to unanimously endorse the deal’s headline target of completely decarbonizing by 2050.
The European Council, made up of the leaders of the 28 EU countries, has been struggling to get a political endorsement of the target since June, when four Eastern European countries led by Poland refused to sign up.
Since then, Von der Leyen has offered the sceptical countries a ‘just transition fund’ that would mobilize up to €100 billion to help fossil-fuel-dependent countries transition to greener energy systems, and help find new work for people in coal mining regions. It was thought that this was enough to get everyone on board at today’s summit. But though Estonia, Hungary and Czechia have relented, Poland still refused to endorse the target in late-night, contentious discussions in the early hours of this morning.
This was the last chance to get a unanimous political backing of the target. Von der Leyen has said she will go ahead with a binding legislative proposal in three months, regardless of whether she has a unanimous political endorsement from the Council or not. Such a legislative proposal would only need a qualified majority to pass, and Poland could not veto it.
For this reason, the leaders decided to adopt conclusions endorsing the target, but noting that one country disagrees. “In the light of the latest available science and of the need to step up global climate action, the European Council endorses the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement,” the text states. “One Member State, at this stage, cannot commit to implement this objective as far as it is concerned, and the European Council will come back to this in June 2020.”
As they left for the night, leaders tried to put a brave face on the outcome. But the failure to get a unanimous endorsement is a worrying sign for the prospects of the EU green deal. “We’ve had intensive discussions today and can say that we can all commit to the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.
“One member state, Poland, couldn’t commit today on how to do the implementation, and so we decided to get back to the issue in June next year.”
“I am, given the circumstances, quite satisfied. There’s no division of Europe’s different parts, but rather one member state that still needs a bit of time to reflect on how this should be implemented. I think we have a good chance for good success.”
Poland loses money
As he left the summit, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had secured an “exemption” to the target.
“The conclusions give us enormous flexibility,” he said, saying that Poland will not have to abide by the target but will still get “a very significant part” of the just transition fund. “We’ll reach it in our own pace,” he said. “We will be able to conduct the transformation in a way that’s safe and economically beneficial for Poland.”
However the reality is that if the legislative proposal is adopted by qualified majority next year, the target will apply to all EU countries whether Warsaw votes for it or not.
Poland’s veto is largely symbolic, but it has had the effect of angering other EU countries, who are now not minded to give Poland money from a fund that was intended to win their backing for the target.
“If it were up to me they won’t get a cent” of the fund, said one fuming EU official.
The Commission is expected to put forward a concrete proposal for the just transition fund the first week of January. Most of the money is expected to come from an existing budgetary line for cohesion funding over the next seven years, money intended to help the new EU countries who joined 15 years ago catch up with their Western and Northern neighbours economically.
A carbon-free continent
The leaders say they will return to the issue at the European Council summit in June of next year. But by that point, there will be little practical reason to try to win over Poland because it cannot veto a legislative proposal.
However, for big agenda items like this the EU prefers to get the political backing of all member states before going ahead, even though it is not technically needed. Historically Brussels is wary of being seen to be forcing national governments to undertake major commitments without their consent. Traditionally the Council should unanimously request a major item of legislation be proposed before the Commission proposes it.
The proposed target would get the EU to “net zero” emissions by 2050. This would mean that the bloc would reduce emissions to a very small amount, and whatever remains would be made up for by abatement measures such as planting forests to suck in carbon, or storing the carbon underground. The idea is that the EU would no longer be contributing any carbon emissions to the world.
The bloc has already set a target of reducing emissions by 40% by 2030. Von der Leyen’s Green Deal envisions a proposal, to be put forward next year, to raise this target to 50 or 55%. But this will also be fiercely resisted by Poland and other Eastern European countries.
The key question going forward is whether the bloc will abandon its usual preferences for political consensus and for Poland and other Eastern European member states to lower their emissions without their consent. The rules allow it, but political realities may not.