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Italy's Georgia Meloni and France's Marine Le Pen.

EU elections 'We are hurtling towards climate disaster, but leadership is now entirely absent'

Sadhbh O’ Neill says following the EU election results, it’s now clear that the future of Europe’s green agenda hangs in the balance.

IT IS WELL over a week since Ireland voted in the European Parliament elections. It went on a little longer than candidates would have hoped but we eventually crawled towards an outcome in the Midlands North-West and South constituencies.

While we were still sifting through votes, Europe’s political leaders were settling down to business and informal talks had already begun to decide who would take the top jobs in Brussels and lead the next European Parliament.

The future of Europe’s green agenda now hangs in the balance. The largest EP grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP), has been campaigning to water down the biodiversity and climate agenda in recent months, with capitulations to the agricultural lobby on CAP environmental conditionality, the dropping of the sustainable use of pesticides regulation, and a relaxation of the ban on fossil fuel car engines after 2035. And there’s more to come.

The EU Council is due to meet in the coming days to finalise the Nature Restoration Law, which was blocked by a small number of member states earlier this year but which has huge public support across Europe. The EU must also soon finalise its 2040 climate target in line with climate science and adopt new measures to address stubborn sources of pollution.

The rise of the right

All of these policies were opposed by far-right parties, which now have about a quarter of the EP seats, so we should be under no illusion that getting these vital measures over the line will be easy. Centrist Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates in the European election campaigns trivialised and mocked the climate agenda in order to win votes, though they were careful to avoid being depicted as climate deniers. For this reason, commentary that the ‘centre has held’ gives me no comfort whatsoever. The climate agenda is in as much danger from procrastinators such as the EPP as it is from climate sceptics in Independent Ireland, who want to shield farmers from the vague threat of “EU regulations and unattainable targets”. The political centre, across Europe, is also increasingly dancing to the nativist tune being played by far right actors who are using unregulated media platforms to platform hate, division and misinformation. We are hurtling towards climate disaster, but leadership is entirely absent.

While climate change might not have been at the top of voters’ priority lists in the recent elections, it is still a major concern for European citizens, with a Eurobarometer poll from July 2023 finding that more than three quarters (77%) of EU citizens think climate change is a very serious problem. The cost of living is a pressing issue for voters in many countries. Nonetheless, opinion polls from May 2024 show that four out of five voters agree that the EU has a vital role to play in protecting the environment and human health. It would be a mistake then, to interpret the loss of Ireland’s green MEP seats as a defeat for climate action.

Furthermore, the wins for the centre and far right are largely due to electoral dynamics in a small number of countries, as opposed to a continent-wide shift to the right or an outright rejection of green and pro-climate policies. Most of the increase and resulting losses for the Greens and Renew parties took place in France and Germany where the far right is gaining momentum, largely due to these parties’ efforts to drive up and then capitalise on fears about immigration.

MixCollage-14-Jun-2024-07-48-PM-8185 Italy's Georgia Meloni and France's Marine Le Pen.

It remains to be seen whether the Parliament’s largest right-wing groupings, led by Italy’s Georgia Meloni and France’s Marine le Pen will overcome their differences to use this new influence and try to shape the EU’s agenda for the next five years. There is also the potential for significant movement within political groupings, as Hungary’s Fidesz MEPs and the German AfD are not currently affiliated to any of the Parliament’s blocs.

Can the centre hold?

As things stand, the existing coalition between Ursula von der Leyen’s EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, and Renew may have enough seats to be returned to office for a second term, though von der Leyen is known to be reaching out to more right-wing groups like the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) which could spell a rightward shift against climate policies. Interestingly, the Green/EFA leader Bas Eickhout MEP was on the record this week offering to bolster this fragile centrist coalition with the support of the Green Group, arguing that such a formation would deliver a stable majority and a continuation of the EU’s Green Deal.

The EPP clearly are in a position where they can choose to seek support from parties to their left, or to their right. As members of the EPP, Fine Gael’s MEPs as well as Taoiseach Simon Harris should be quizzed on their support for such an alliance, and any agri-environmental measures that are watered down under the guise of removing “red tape”. Europe’s common agricultural policies will be on the political agenda soon enough, too, with the existing CAP due to expire in 2027. The EU plays a critical role in all these policy areas, and the new Parliament will be a decisive force in shaping the EU’s response to the ecological and climate challenges that inevitably lie ahead.

The fate of Europe’s environmental agenda will be tested next week when Environment Ministers from all 27 member states meet in Brussels to decide the fate of the watered-down Nature Restoration Law. While its future for the moment rests with the Member States, it will be a critical test of the resolve of Europe’s political leaders to implement environmental legislation in the face of opposition from the right.

As Ollie Moore from the rural and agricultural organisation ARC puts it, “we need MEPs who can face up to what science says and what society needs – both of them. Denialism and retraction isn’t a solution anywhere.”

Sadhbh O’ Neill is a researcher in climate and environmental policy.

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