Climate change action: From the streets to the European Parliament?

Climate change action: From the streets to the European Parliament?

Vanessa Chesnot April 2019

“If you want to be re-elected, you better have a good climate policy,”

warned Anuna De Wever, co-organiser of the youth climate change protests in Belgium in March. Will her call to politicians be shared by EU citizens in next May’s Europe-wide ballot?

In autumn 2018, when asked about the most important issues facing the EU at the moment, citizens mentioned in this order: immigration, terrorism, the economic situation, and Member State finances[1].

Though “only” in fifth position, climate change registered the largest increase (+5 percentage points) compared to spring 2018 and is at a record high. In recent months, citizens across Europe took part in hundreds of climate change protests to demand their politicians respond to the climate emergency, while European Green parties last year showed strong electoral showings in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Bavaria.

Will voters support politicians and parties that openly support the transition to a low-carbon society?

The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) have clearly made climate & sustainability one of their key political priorities, but according to polls[2] they are both likely to lose seats – in the S&D’s case – currently the second biggest parliamentary group – at least 50 MEPs.

At the other end of the political spectrum, climate change and sustainability have – so far – been barely mentioned as policy priorities. Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party’s (EPP) candidate for Commission President, is focusing on economic policy, home affairs, and “EU values and identity”. The EPP is currently the biggest group in the European Parliament and is expected to maintain its leadership, even though it too may lose around 40 seats.

Right-wing populist parties – which tend to be climate sceptics, or at least hostile to policies prescribing action on climate change –are expected to increase their influence in the new Parliament and thereby drive a decisive shift to the right.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has played the role of kingmaker in the current Parliament and looks likely to include French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, En Marche, within its ranks. The party believes that “the EU must be a leading force in the world in addressing climate change, ocean health, and sustainable growth” and its number of seats could rise to 95 seats from 68 currently (factoring in the En Marche seats).

A social backlash against climate policies?

In the run-up to COP 21 in Paris in 2015, the EU pledged to be a climate leader, successfully contributing to an ambitious international climate deal to keep global warming below 2°C and even further to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

The Juncker Commission has shown strong political leadership which has encouraged EU decision-makers to agree on a mass overhaul of energy, climate, and environment legislation in Europe. The European Commission is leaving a strong and forward-looking legacy to its successor with the 2050 long-term climate strategy and is clearly in favour of transforming the EU economy into carbon neutrality (net-zero emissions) by mid-century.

While the EU is strengthening its climate policy to decarbonise Europe’s economy and fight climate change, the French “gilets jaunes” unrest, which started life as a social backlash against higher fuel taxes, has pushed climate change policies and their social acceptance to the top of the political agenda.

Not only that, it also sparked a debate at the EU level on a “just energy transition” that would ensure the EU’s decarbonisation objective is socially acceptable and supported by citizens.

The EU has limited competences on social policy, but the social consequences of climate policies are likely to be a critical aspect of this election campaign, and this debate will doubtless impact the EU climate and environment agenda for the next EU five years.



[1] Standard EU Barometer 90

[2] https://www.politico.eu/2019-european-elections/