EU Reform and Climate Policies – Pretty Much Best Friends

By Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf, Ecologic Institute & Sebastian Oberthür, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

This Thursday, the European Council will meet in Sibiu, Romania. Not long ago, this meeting was expected to be an important milestone in the Process on the Future of the EU. Some even called this process “the Sibiu Process”. This seems to be a long time ago. Now, expectations are much lower; most expect only a vague outcome, at best. Avoiding controversy is the first order of business – only a few weeks before the elections. But – no matter what the outcome of the meeting in Sibiu will be – the core questions of the Process on the Future of the EU will not go away: how to maintain and develop a strong EU that is capable of helping Member States address problems that they cannot solve alone. This question will stick with us, and it will keep the new Parliament and the new Commission busy.

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Climate policies can help to find the right answer to the core question of how to maintain and develop a strong EU that is capable of helping Member States address problems that they cannot solve alone.

Climate policies can help to find the right answers to this question (1). In a way, maintaining a strong EU and effective climate policies are pretty much best friends: a stable, prosperous and climate-resilient Europe requires effective climate action; and effective climate action needs a strong EU. At this general level, there is a lot of agreement: when EU policy makers speak about the future of the EU, they often speak about the importance of climate action. However, there is more than general agreement. Climate policies and the future of the EU can reinforce each other in concrete ways.

For one, climate builds bridges between Member States in times of tension. Endless controversy about the rule of law, migration and the Euro make the EU look divided and paralysed. These conflicts make headlines but there is more to the EU. The EU works together on many issues that don’t make it to the front page but are essential for the continent. EU climate and energy policies are a prime example. In 2017 and 2018, for example, the EU adopted important reforms of its climate and energy laws: emission trading was reformed, a new Climate Action Regulation was adopted and the energy acquis was overhauled. Although insufficient for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, these reforms showed what the EU can achieve when Member States work together – much more than the sum of individual Member States.

As a second contribution, climate policies can induce a sense of a common challenge that gives direction to the EU. Because of the momentous dimension of climate change and decarbonizing Europe’s economies, climate action can define a positive agenda for the EU for the decades to come.

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A stable, prosperous and climate-resilient Europe requires effective climate action; and effective climate action needs a strong EU.

Climate policies can also offer support on a less visible but equally important front: slogans like “More or less Europe”, “reinventing or restarting Europe” have framed much of the debate on the future of the EU. This framing is a problem. It incorrectly suggests that the EU is dysfunctional while many of its daily routines and outputs prove the opposite. It distracts attention from the raison d’être of the EU: to solve practical and vital problems that require institutionalised cooperation between Member States over long periods. For a meaningful debate, it is important to reframe it and to refocus on issues that require cooperation in the EU. A number of policy fields can bring the debate to this level, but climate policies are particularly well positioned because they provide a strong rationale for institutionalised European cooperation.

The fourth contribution of climate policies to the future of the EU is about transparency and participation. Climate and energy policies are more transparent and participatory than other EU policy fields. The new Governance Regulation for the Energy Union and Climate Action, for example, requires Member States to establish permanent multilevel dialogues on energy policies with stakeholders and the public. The new EU energy legislation also facilitates citizen energy projects.

As pretty much best friends, it is not only for climate policies to help the EU; it also works the other way around. Friendship is not a one-way street: the Process on the Future of the EU can support climate action in various ways. It should acknowledge that climate action is a hallmark of an evolving EU. What is more, the process on the future of the EU should start a discussion on expanding majority voting in climate action. Some issues with great significance for climate action are still subject to unanimity: energy taxation, energy mix and spatial planning. In these areas, the European Parliament has only consultative status; it is not an equal legislator. This set up has impeded progress, in particular on effective energy taxation. Because of Parliament’s limited role, it also weakens democracy in the EU.

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The process on the future of the EU should acknowledge that climate action is a hallmark of an evolving EU and enhance climate decision making.

As another important contribution to improving EU climate policies, the process on the future of the EU should acknowledge that the EU’s international climate policy can be decided by qualified majority – as set out in the treaty, but in contrast to today’s practice. Last but not least, the process on the Future of the EU is an opportunity to clarify the role of the European Council vis-a-vis legislative processes and climate action. In the past, the European Council has occasionally intervened in the details of climate law making, which has hampered progress – because the European Council decides by consensus. This practice has also raised constitutional issues because interference with the details of law making by the European Council undermines majority voting and the mandate of the EU’s two legislators – the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (2).

On 10 April, after another exhausting Brexit night, Jean-Claude Juncker begged to return to a “positive agenda”. Climate action is such a positive agenda. It is about the future and about a genuine opportunity to improve the quality of life of Europeans. It is contested but it doesn’t have the dividing effect of migration; it lacks the backward and inward-looking touch of Brexit. It is constructive, not destructive. In short: EU reform and climate action are pretty much best friends. Sibiu should make this point.

 

  1. Recent work of the Ecologic Institute – in cooperation with the Istituto Affari Internazionali, the Institute of European Environment Policies and the Climate Strategy Institute 2050 – provide more detailed analysis.
  2. Detailed discussion of this matter can be found at: Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf – Can the European Council Impose Consensus on EU Climate Policies?
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