European Union

The climate after Europe’s election

The centre-right was the real winner in the European Parliament—it now faces a stark choice on green policy

June 21, 2024
The French green party ahead of the European Elections. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy.
The French green party ahead of the European Elections. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy.

The longstanding Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout described watching the results of the recent European Parliament elections as like being on a “rollercoaster”. On his feed on X, Eickhout narrated the fortunes of Green parties across the EU like he was watching the Euros: “Clearly disappointing from France and Germany”, he wrote, “but great results from Denmark, Sweden and Finland”. Eickhout likewise cheered the entry into the parliament of Green politicians from Latvia, Croatia and Italy.

The media has fixated on the rise of the far right, but its wins in certain EU countries are diluted in the European Parliament by a mixed bag of results. Notwithstanding Eickhout’s enthusiasm, the parliament’s Greens group lost 20 seats. The centre prevailed across the continent. In fact, the real election winner was the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which will also hold most sway in the European Commission with Ursula von der Leyen, an EPP member, almost certain to be reappointed as president. How the party chooses to position itself on the climate will determine the EU’s direction of travel over the next five years.

Despite the EPP essentially owning the European Green Deal—the EU’s flagship climate policy, which was initiated by von der Leyen—many of its members have been far from supportive. The EPP’s election manifesto expressed its belief in “European leadership in climate and environmental protection… to safeguard our planet [and]… promote economic prosperity and food security,” but insisted this had to come with “less bureaucracy”. The party backed the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy as economic policy, but campaigned furiously against imposing environmental measures on agriculture, despite food and farming accounting for a third of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. The EPP has also fought against EU plans to restore nature.

EU watchers see numerous potential hazards for climate action in this new political landscape. The EPP’s election campaign made use of the climate-sceptic narratives of the extreme right, says Ariel Brunner, policy director at NGO Birdlife Europe. Yet, the reality of governing is very different to campaigning. The EPP will have to decide whether to stick to its campaign pledges, which included opening up and likely weakening existing nature protection laws, or to double down on the Green Deal. Fully delivering EU climate plans will mean galvanising a broad coalition of actors and implementing policies to cut emissions while creating jobs, helping people and businesses to adapt to the effects of extreme temperatures and ensuring the survival of the common market. 

Brunner says his big worry is that the commission and parliament become “so preoccupied with symbolic gestures” that they abandon "the day job of running the continent”. He cites the EPP’s call for “new rules” to manage wolves and brown bears, seen by some as a threat to farmers’ livelihoods, and the pledge by the German Christian Democrats to overturn the 2035 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars as examples. Neither, he argues, will address the real challenges facing either European industry or agriculture. 

Finding common ground between climate action and industrial strategy will also be important if the EU is to achieve climate neutrality. Consensus between the EPP, Social Democrats and smaller groups like the Greens will be crucial for “the EU to remain a strong and diversified powerhouse and to deepen the internal market,” Kristian Ruby, secretary general of Eurelectric, the electricity industry body, tells me. He believes there is “strong consensus" among pro-EU parties for the Green Deal to be turned into reality.

Semantics might be one way for the various parties to find common ground. EU policy makers will need to reach a compromise on the region’s 2040 emissions reduction target, for instance. The Commission has recommended a 90 per cent cut compared to 1990 levels. Mats Engström, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the headline figure could be agreed, but that discussions might be “about how you count”. In other words, instead of forcing countries to cut emissions domestically, they could also offset them by investing in projects abroad.

Europe’s climate policy will also be shaped by developments outside Brussels. French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election after Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) success on 9th June could lead to trouble in Paris and Brussels if her party wins in July. RN describes the Green Deal as a form of “punitive ecology” and promises in its manifesto to champion French nuclear and hydropower, not “intermittent energies” like wind power “imposed by the EU”. The 2025 German elections also loom large on the horizon. German prime minister Olaf Scholz is unpopular with voters, and his Social Democrat party trailed the car-loving conservatives and the climate sceptic far-right Alternative für Deutschland in the parliament elections.

Policymakers can try to head off any further rise of the far right or pushback against climate policies by ensuring plans to reduce emissions have a “strong social dimension” and that decision-making is “more inclusive,” says Engström, evoking the importance of a “just transition.” But they also need to stop parties further to the right appropriating a narrative that equates obstructing the energy transition with saving voters money.  

Net zero is more deeply embedded in centre-right party policy than in the programmes of their peers further to the right. But EPP politicians appear ready to delay climate action if they feel that a policy may harm fossil fuel firms or upset industry. Passing climate legislation in the EU is now largely impossible without the EPP’s backing. If the party decides to reach out to the Social Democrats and the Greens, rather than relying on the far right, the Green Deal can become reality—even if the focus is likely to be competitiveness and fairness, rather than climate action.