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Will EU election mess with the bloc's bold climate policies?

May 29, 2024

The EU has billed its climate policies as trailblazing. But experts say a rightward shift after the European Parliament elections in June could see the bloc backpedal on its green ambitions.

A dried out reservoir bed with boats sitting on cracked mud in Spain
As temperatures rise, parts of Europe are experiencing droughts with higher and higher frequency and intensityImage: PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images

Convoys of tractors clogging the streets of European capitals, burning tires, and even manure slinging: Recent farmers' demonstrations against a law that would restore European nature have become a potent symbol of an apparent backlash against the European Union's (EU's) climate policies. 

Ahead of the June European parliamentary elections, EU lawmakers watered down the Nature Restoration Law under pressure from protestors and the rise of populist and right-wing voices. The law aims to rehabilitate 20% of European nature by 2030 but restoration targets for agricultural land and peatland were ultimately diluted. 

A key tenet of the EU Green Deal — a policy package aimed at cleaning up the bloc's entire economy from energy and transport to agriculture in a bid to become CO2 neutral by 2050 — the Nature Restoration Law could well be rejected at the final legislative hurdle, with some countries saying they will either abstain or vote against it. 

It's a far cry from the 2019 European elections, when hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets to demand more climate action. Not long after, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyenunveiled the ambitious Green Deal, calling it "Europe's man on the moon moment."  

Ursula von der Leyen against a backdrop that reads Green Deal
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen originally called the European Green Deal the bloc's 'man on the moon moment'Image: Yves Herman/REUTERS

Since then, the bloc has signed off on a raft of legislation to reduce planet heating greenhouse gas emissions, including a ban on the sale of new fossil fuel cars starting 2035 and carbon market reforms. 

Those policies are unlikely to be withdrawn. But the new mood music raises questions about the future of the EU's wider environmental agenda after the election. Even as the continent experiences record heat, drought and flooding and surveys show most Europeans are in favor of doing more to tackle climate change, analysts warn more parties are using climate policy as a political scapegoat, blaming it for higher energy prices and rising living costs. 

"We know that those arguments are usually used to polarize to the maximum extent before the European election and therefore to attract some voters," said Neil Makaroff, a political analyst from Brussels-based thinktank Strategic Perspectives.  

Infographic showing the cost of energy generated by renewable sources

Ahead of the EU elections, climate policy under pressure 

The latest election polls show von der Leyen's center-right European People's Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) projected to remain the biggest parliamentary forces. But climate-critical radical right, nationalist and conservative groupings could become significant political players, gaining new seats and polling ahead of the European Greens. 

Even if right-wing populists aren't the largest grouping in parliament, a rightward shift would significantly change the climate calculus among lawmakers, said Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Over the last five years, environmental laws were waved through the parliament thanks to a "grand coalition" majority made up of the EPP and S&D, with support from liberals, greens and the left, said Dennison. 

But far-right parties like Germany's AfD or the French Rassemblement National (National Rally) want to reverse the Green Deal either entirely or in part, saying it is too expensive for the average voter, will damage the bloc's industry and escalate costs for farmers. 

"It will no longer be very easy to obtain a majority on these lines, and there will be much more need in general to rely on the far right," Dennison said.

Analysts are particularly pessimistic when it comes to the most controversial issues of protecting biodiversity and reforms to make farming in the EU more sustainable. The vote on the Nature Restoration Law last year hinted that cracks are already showing. 

Under pressure from farmers and the right-wing, the EPP mounted an eleventh-hour rebellion against the law, when most of the party voted with far-right and Eurosceptic conservatives against even the watered-down version. 

With several EU member states holding domestic elections this year, a rightward shift could also delay full implementation of urgent EU climate targets at a national level, particularly those impacting small businesses and individuals while the cost of living is on everyone's mind.

"We are facing the need for a lot of progress in some much more political areas," Dennison told DW, pointing to the electrification of the transport sector, regulations on the construction and renovation of buildings, and on energy efficiency."

The cost of rowing back on climate policies: droughts and rising sea levels

At the same time, the EU cannot afford delays on climate protection, which is already happening too slowly, stated the European Environment Agency (EEA). The bloc is not prepared for the consequences of planetary heating such as drought, water shortages, storms, floods, biodiversity loss and rising sea levels, the agency said. 

And farmers are on the frontline. In the extreme heat of summer 2022, drought hit around 22% of Europe's agricultural land, resulting in crop losses. Smaller harvests can lead to higher food prices or "heatflation."

Weather and climate-related extremes in Europe have already caused around €0.5 trillion in economic losses over the past 40 years and that is set to worsen considerably. 

A sprawling solar farm in Germany
The share of renewables in the EU energy mix has been rising steadily for the past two decadesImage: DW

While some EU Green Deal critics say climate protection measures are too expensive, analyst Neil Makaroff says they are actually attracting massive investment in renewables, batteries and sustainable manufacturing. The EEA estimates investments of over €500 billion per year between 2021 and 2030. And Makaroff added that a green transition would create more jobs than it destroys. One estimate says it would add an extra 2.5 million EU jobs by 2030.

Backtracking on fully implementing Green Deal targets would also risk Europe falling behind on its goal to become less dependent on renewables from China or gas imports from the USA and Azerbaijan, said the analyst. It would also be a bad signal to investors and call the EU's role in climate negotiations into question. 

"The EU won't be seen as a credible actor at the international level," Makaroff told DW, adding that it would also risk Europe's competitiveness in the long term. Other countries see the transformation to a net-zero economy as a strategic economic asset. 

"They are not waiting for the EU," said Makaroff.

Edited by: Jennifer Collins