23 May 2019   |   News

Green optimism riding high ahead of EU elections

A host of climate change candidates have ensured Brexit, populism and migration did not monopolise the agenda

Irish Green Party candidates (from left to right) Grace O’Sullivan, Saoirse McHugh and Ciarán Cuffe. Photo: The Green Party

The majority of people tend to treat climate change as a far-off problem to worry about another day. This might be changing however, with a host of candidates for the 2019 European Parliament having ensured green issues got their best airing ever in an EU election campaign.

“We had to keep climate in the conversation and ensure it didn’t get drowned out by things like Brexit,” said 19-year-old Daze Aghaji, one of nine members of the climate action group Extinction Rebellion standing as independent candidates in the UK.  

Some are calling it the Greta Thunberg effect. The 16-year old Swedish climate activist and founder of the school strike movement is credited with shaming politicians into taking the issue seriously. Speaking in the European Parliament last month, she issued a clarion call on the climate emergency, and pleaded with candidates in the EU elections not spend all their time “talking about taxes or Brexit.”

While climate change is sometimes discussed at the EU’s regular summits, the issue has never dominated, with migration, the eurozone crisis and more recently, Brexit, absorbing the attention of Europe’s top leaders.

Aghaji - who in addition to campaigning this week had to sit a university exam - wants to “create a space for more urgent discussion about climate change.”

The chances of winning a seat, she acknowledges, are slight to none. “I don’t expect to win, and I’ll be fine if I don’t. It’s not really the sole point of me running,” she said.

Across the EU, polling shows an unprecedented level of interest in the topic, and while there is some distance between parties on how to address it, this election saw fewer voices dismissing climate change as some elite conspiracy.

“Climate change is much higher on the political agenda than before,” said Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network Europe in Brussels. “It had never been such a priority in any European election campaign.”

Green power

Trio says the balance of votes in this week’s European Parliament election could leave the assembly’s Green group in its strongest position ever, and he is less fearful than most about expected gains for the eurosceptic far-right parties. Polls suggest populist parties will take up to a third of seats.

“The only influence they have is in their voting numbers, but luckily they will unlikely be strong enough to block [anything],” he said.

Counterintuitively, greater anti-EU representation in the assembly could aid action on climate change, Trio suggests. Should the eurosceptic bloc grow at the expense of the two dominant political groups, the centre-right European Peoples’ Party and the left Socialists and Democrats, the Greens would be relied upon more during the next political cycle to help pass legislation.

“The fragmentation will make it impossible for conservatives and social democrats to make deals just between the two of them,” said Trio. “They might need to compromise with the Greens on the bigger issues which would in reality boost their power.” Some projections put the Greens on 57 seats in the next 751-seat legislature, up from 52 at present.

Many of the candidates vying for the post of European Commission president have promised to push for faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but some question how deep this green streak runs.

Manfred Weber, the technical frontrunner in the race to replace Jean-Claude Juncker, has said the best EU strategy against climate change is a bigger focus on investing in new technologies under the Horizon Europe research programme, rather than on policies that penalise emitters and threaten jobs.

The EU wants to slash its emissions by at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels, by 2030. The Commission has proposed that €320 billion, one-quarter of its proposed 2021–2027 budget, should go to meeting this target. That is up from €206 billion, or one-fifth, of the current budget. More than one third of Horizon Europe money is earmarked for this effort too.

However, Weber’s commitment to fighting climate change is questioned by Climate Action Network Europe, which, in an analysis of MEP’s voting record, branded his EPP group “dinosaurs”.

Far apart on climate action

Politicians may be talking more about a looming climate emergency, but it will take an even bigger effort to get governments’ policies in line with the Paris climate agreement.

In Ireland, politicians on the campaign trail tried to navigate a tricky path between growing the country’s farming industry and curbing emissions.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are going through the roof,” said Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish Green Party politician, during a candidates’ debate on Monday.

Andrew Doyle, minister of state for food, forestry and horticulture, defended the large environmental impact of Ireland's farming sector. He said Ireland's output per animal was lower, and denied that more animals would mean more emissions.

“It’s not about penalising agriculture, it’s about being inventive,” said Billy Kelleher, who is running in Ireland’s southern constituency for the opposition Fianna Fail party. “We shouldn’t be promoting the decrease of our herd.”

A carbon tax is not the answer either, because it would penalise the poor, said Adrienne Wallace of the Solidarity–People Before Profit party.

Climate change falls somewhere behind migration, the economy and energy security in the former Soviet bloc nations and in southern Europe, even as Green candidates are pushing hard to win their first seats in Poland, Slovenia and Hungary.

Romania’s conservative National Liberal party, for example, says climate policies should not come at the expense of “strategic interests” in oil and gas. As a reminder to voters, leaflets distributed by the party included pictures of an oil field.

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