The European election aftermath: what next for environmental policies?

The 2019 elections are likely to be remembered as a turning point in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation. The ever-increasing public concern regarding these issues had an unprecedented impact on the electoral choice of many European citizens. The environmental stance of parties became a make-or-break issue for many voters.

According to the Standard Eurobarometer 90 survey published in fall 2018, climate change has become one of the main issues of public concern at the European level: on average, 16% of European citizens thought that climate change is one of the two most important issues facing Europe, compared with 6% in 2016. However, there were large variations among Member States, with 44% of citizens in Sweden seeing climate change as one of the two most important issues facing the EU, while this figure fell to 4% in Greece. Public concern about climate change has also been illustrated by different climate marches and youth protests, the last one having taken place on Friday 24th of May in more than 110 countries. Youth appears to have played a part in the surge of Green votes in some countries in the election to the European Parliament, mostly in France, Germany and Belgium, according to Le Monde. In Germany for instance, amongst those who voted, 1 in 3 people under 30 voted for the Greens. However, this was not the case in southern and eastern European countries, where Green parties are not strong.

Rising public concern over climate change had an impact on manifestos which on average gave more prominence to environmental issues than in 2014. For instance, IEEP’s manifesto analysis found that there was a step change in the language around climate ambition with parties referring to the 1.5 degree target in the Paris Agreement, the most recent IPCC conclusions or the need for a more ambitious emission reduction target for 2030. Other emerging consensus priorities in the manifestos included the circular economy, research and innovation and their role in sustainability, environmental health and the interface between social and environmental policies.

The provisional election results published by the Parliament show a slight decrease in seats for the two biggest groups, the EPP and the S&D, with now respectively 179 and 153 seats, therefore not gathering enough to have a majority together. They are followed in numbers by ALDE&R, reaching 105 seats. The Greens have become the fourth group, growing from 52 to 69 seats, following a ‘green wave’ in some of the Member States, particularly in Germany and France. Regarding the far right, ENF gained seats, and reaches 58, while ECR lost seats, from 77 to 63. EFDD gained 12 seats. On the left, GUE/NGL lost seats and reached 38.

In light of the manifestos and the provisional electoral results, it is likely that the new Parliament will be pushing for more ambitious environmental policy, starting with the choice of the President of the Commission, the formulation of key priorities for the new Commission, the finalisation of negotiations around Europe’s budget and the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy.

While some issues could attract a growing consensus, such as measures to increase climate ambition, circular economy 2.0 and the promotion of innovation for sustainability, others are likely to create divisions, such as what is a suitable model of growth, transport, fiscal issues, CAP, trade and the overall role of regulation. Some of the current blind spots of party manifestos will need to be tackled, including areas ranging from biodiversity to sustainable consumption.

Euractiv evokes different scenarios for a coalition. An alliance from GUE/NGL to ALDE+R which would also include the S&D and the Greens might be short a few seats. Suggestions include a coalition of S&D, ALDE+R and EPP. Other scenarios include this coalition also adding the Greens. Discussions to form a coalition and to support one candidate as the head of the Commission will have to include political priorities on environmental issues. According to ENDS, Martin Selmayr expects the green wave to have an impact on the programme of the next Commission. However, differences among the parties’ proposals - and particularly with the EPP’s - could bring difficulties into the negotiations. The position of the European Council will also be determinant.

To respond to peace, security, prosperity, wellbeing and natural environment challenges, Europe’s agenda needs to be based on a credible plan for a transition to greater sustainability, with one coherent framework in line with the SDGs. In a context when the European Council is divided over the ambition of Europe’s future climate and environmental policies, the European Parliament will also bear a particular responsibility in pushing for adequate ambition through:

  • Science-based targets: Quantified targets must address all planetary boundaries and be supported by policies and sectoral strategies that fully integrate the social and economic dimensions of sustainability.
  • Immediate actions, with an initial transition plan from now to 2030: acting with urgency is necessary, hence the importance of framing the current EU budgetary discussions within 2030 goals.
  • A stronger policy-science interface: It might be time to build on the success of the IPCC model and establish a similar multidisciplinary body, dedicated to Europe, encompassing all SDGs.
  • Closing the gap: finding new solutions to the persistent implementation gap affecting EU policies in the environmental field and the related accountability gap where delivery fails.
  • Reinventing the policy toolbox: A new toolbox and decision-making process will be required, incorporating a much wider and more target-oriented use of economic instruments.
  • A plan for sustainable consumption, creating an EU policy and regulatory framework conducive to ambitious front-runner initiatives at Member State level.

Let’s hope that the new MEPs - irrespective of the party they represent - will be able to work together to address the daunting challenges ahead. According to the IPCC’s most recent report, we have less than 5,000 days to make the changes needed before it is too late to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. There is no time to waste.


Photo source: (29/05/2019 14.00 CET)