How to prevent unemployment while phasing out fossil fuels as fast as possible? Is the ecological and social transformation a priority in the crisis recovery? Which mechanisms can help to leave no one behind in the transition?
Katrin Langensiepen, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA and Pieter de Pous, E3G, Berlin Office in a conversation with Marc Berthold, Head of the Department for European Union and North America, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin.
We need to talk about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis and how that influences plans for the European Green Deal. How do you see the commitment of the European Commission and also that of the member states to continue with ecological and social transformation during this crisis? Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel said climate change is a top priority, but is it in the recovery plan?
Katrin Langensiepen: When Ursula von der Leyen started in the Commission we criticised her for not having a real interest in climate policy. And we questioned how strong and focused she really is or whether it is just about saying the right things but not acting on them.
We don’t want to block what she proposed. As a Green group we decided to say we support her as much as we can to help push her ideas forward. When it comes to serious decisions in climate change, social aspects are weak or not really ambitious, so we have to push the Commission to do more.
Pieter de Pous, if you look at the €750 billion recovery fund proposal, do you think ecological and social transformation combined will be part of that?
Pieter de Pous: I’m cautiously optimistic. I have actually spent a long time in Brussels during the Junker Commission working at an NGO, and I mean it’s notable the way things have changed. My sense is that it's more than rhetorical.
I think one of the weaknesses of the Green Deal is that it is a Commission project and a parliament project, but it wasn’t necessarily owned by the member states. The fact that we had some early, over-publicised opposition from countries like Poland or the Czech Republic probably helped to get countries to take more ownership of it.
We’re now starting to move from the rhetorical to the more substantial questions, like what’s in the delivery, and I would say the jury is still out. The Farm-to-Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy that came out in late May got quite positive reactions from environmental groups and were criticised heavily by farm unions. But we need to look into the details of the actual recovery proposal by the Commission. We’ve heard the rumours that that’s when the conditionality might be weakened and I think that is the biggest test because it’s one thing to talk about climate conditionality in a normal situation but much harder to insist on it when the economy is struggling.
Some countries are more forthcoming or progressive in that respect already. It’s going to be very interesting how the debates in Germany will now revolve around coal. Before, everyone saw it like: ‘it’s not good enough but at least we’re doing it’. Now people are starting to realise this might actually lock in a slow coal phase-out instead. As things are really shifting at the moment, I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going in the right direction.
Staying with that thought, we saw that France has already attached conditions and showed how they want to be part of that transition, and Austria as well. In Germany, there’s no talk so far concerning Lufthansa, and also the automotive industry, which of course in Germany is key. Is there a dilemma with this acute economic crisis and high risk of unemployment, and the long-term goal that was initially envisioned in the Green Deal to organise this transition in order to save jobs or prevent massive unemployment? Do you have any suggestions on how to manage these different timelines?
Katrin Langensiepen: To me it’s not a dilemma but a question of political will. Ten years ago, when I had finished university, my generation became the victim of the financial crisis and its consequences. Young people out of jobs lived at home with their parents, had no possibility to start a real life.
As a social politician remembering that time, I am flagging and raising the issue of what is going to happen. We don’t know when the coronavirus pandemic will end. We can open the economy, but the coronavirus will tell us how far we can go. In that sense, the pandemic has us under control. There is huge pressure from the automotive industry and other sectors, and under this pressure politicians decided to open the society. But what happens after the summer holidays? A second wave? Are we going to close everything because the numbers go up again?
As politicians, we always need to be prepared for the social consequences of health and economic crises. What about minimal wage, minimum income? Minimum wage was a huge topic for Von der Leyen, now she’s a bit more silent on that issue. What about UBI (universal basic income) and other social equalizing initiatives? A clear social strategy is what we need . The Green Deal doesn’t feature it in my opinion.
Do you agree with this Pieter?
Pieter de Pous: I would say there are definitely some tensions between the different things we need to be doing in terms of sequencing, and of course they have a lot to do with political will.
From the immediate firefighting stabilisation phase of just throwing money into the system, we went to discussions about what kind of recovery we want. For example, one of the things we’ve been arguing is that you need to sort of take a step-wise approach so when the economy is tanking and everyone is in trouble, everyone can get some help. But the moment we talk about more structural changes, all those groups who have been getting help will be the first to reject a lot of those structural reform measures that we might adopt later on. And that is where you start to see the tension and why it’s very important that, when talking about the recovery programmes, we make it very clear these are not unconditional payments in the way the liquidity support was in the beginning.
But, if I can just be the optimist here again, five years ago, in the last crisis, there was barely a debate about the car scrappage scheme, it naturally just happened. Right now, the voices speaking against it are a very substantive part of the public opinion: the experts. Now, public opinion seems to have a different view on this. It’s much more uncertain that that’s going to happen and if it will happen, under which conditions? You see something changing there and right in the middle of the pandemic everyone is worried about a lot of things. People realise subsidising some luxury cars companies is not going to help us.
And who are your partners in crime in keeping all that on the agenda? Is it the Commission? Is it some particular member states? Civil society? Who do you need and where are the obstacles?
Katrin Langensiepen: The obstacles lie within the Council, the member states. You can see that Merkel and Macron have offered a plan, the €500 billion idea, and Austria, Poland and Scandinavia said no. So, where’s the solidarity with the member states?
Pieter de Pous: There’s definitely a power struggle going on between the member states and the Commission. That’s always been like that. I would hope that in the end member states do understand it is also in their self-interest to have a strong Commission in place to be the fair arbitrator and enforcer, but it’s something that member states find very hard to accept. We are in a situation with the Green Deal where there is the buy-in in the parliaments and I think the Commission is making a genuine effort. We need to see how things will evolve.
So, I think the real challenge is that the whole Green Deal is work under construction. We still need to secure the climate target, we need to agree on the Just Transition Fund, on the conditionality, on the CAP reform and much more. There’s a whole bundle of things that needs to be decided in the coming months that we will need to get right.
Katrin Langensiepen: Its comparable behaviour to what happened in 2008/2009. It’s Merkel and Macron and Austria, the Dutch and the Scandinavians. What about the Southern European member states? To me, it was disappointing to see that Merkel and Macron made a plan without including Italy, for example. It would have been a better political sign, and trying to avoid the same mistakes as 2008 and instead show we have a real interest to include Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc.
Let’s have a last look at the social dimension of the Green Deal and the Just Transition Fund, mainly focused on regions with energy intensive industries. What’s the way forward to really make this work? Are you happy with the Just Transition Fund or do you think there need to be additional measures?
Pieter de Pous: I’ve sometimes wondered if we need one, but I think the way the Commission has gone about it was sensible. I think the key thing with the Just Transition Fund is that it’s meant to close the East/West clean energy divides, and that’s still relevant.
It could be improved, though. One weakness is that the way the money is allocated to the member states doesn’t reflect the ambition in terms of climate or phase-out schedules of coal. It’s very weak in the general sort of climate conditionality in terms of things that can be strengthened. We need to agree on a Just Transition Fund that makes very clear that for any solidarity between the EU on the energy transition, those receiving it, like Poland, will need to show they are going to move on clean energy, on phasing out coal and everything. Then it can work. So, that remains relevant and the question of recovery comes on top of that.
The recovery issue is again a North/South problem, not because the South has a worse health system, but simply because they were the ones who were hit the worst and economically they are very dependent on tourism and that is where they are going to get hit. So, there are a number of reasons beyond their own control why they are now going to need more solidarity under the recovery mechanism.
We need the agreement and the details and adjustment funds first to get the right blueprint and then we can add more money to it. The amount of money that is going to be added to it will need to be a reflection of both the old gap we are trying to close between East and West plus the new/old one because the North-South isn’t actually new one, we’ve had it before in the past.
Katrin, since Germany is taking the EU presidency in the summer, with all these challenges, what are your expectations and what are your demands of the German government in managing the situation and this compromise that needs to be found?
Katrin Langensiepen: Everybody is looking at Germany and at how they are planning to solve the crisis. To me, helping and funding and supporting countries is related to the question of how you treat people in your own country.
Look at the situation of LGBTIQ in Poland and the situation of refugees in Italy and in Greece. Greece was the weakest and poorest country in 2008 and 2009 and there was no solidarity at all. I hope that that is going to change now. We as Greens must be fighting for these people; we shouldn’t forget about that and try to connect it to demands and say if you want to get our help you should find a solution for that.
Pieter, what would be your benchmark at the end of 2020 to say ‘This was successful German presidency’?
Pieter de Pous: I think an agreement on a Climate Law would be a major achievement, but also starting to get the rest of the world to come along with this. For example, using the conversation with China to ask what they are going to do in terms of coal pipelines, using the fact that Europe is already putting a lot of its efforts in phasing out coal. Also, getting a deal on recovery would be a goal. My guess is it won’t be much more than that, given the general constraints the presidency has, and if there are not going to be physical meetings, it will be a very limited agenda. But we’re trusting in the German, Portuguese and Slovenian cooperation to pick up what can’t be resolved this year.
Thank you so much.
The conversation took place on 25 May 2020.