This article is part of our special report EU elections: The environmental issue.
The lead candidate for the European Conservatives at next month’s EU elections has made climate policy and other environmental issues one of his key election themes. But can he square up his green agenda with his passion for national sovereignty? EURACTIV tried to find out.
“Conservatives are natural conservationists.”
The phrase was put at the top of the website of the Blue-Green summit, a one-day environmental policy seminar organised earlier this month by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), a party running for the May EU elections.
“Environmentalism, and the world we live in, are altogether too important to be left to the left,” the EU Conservatives assert on the seminar’s website.
The Conservatives’ conversion to environmentalism may look surprising to some. But it goes back at least a decade, when David Cameron, the former UK prime minister, promised to have the “greenest government ever”.
Cameron made the environment one of his core campaign issues, using climate policy to detoxify the Tory image as “the nasty party”. The same strategy was applied to ACRE when the pan-European party launched in 2009, under Tory leadership.
It was a winning recipe for the British Conservatives, although some later criticised Cameron for raising the bar too high and then disappointing green-minded voters.
So can the European Conservatives pull it off again at the next European election?
Political awareness, at least, is certainly there. Environmental issues “rank second in terms of what people are thinking when they go out to vote in the upcoming European elections,” said Richard Milsom, chief executive of ACRE.
“This has been obvious for some time” with the youth climate marches that have taken place across Europe over the past months, he said in his opening speech for the Blue-Green summit in Brussels.
“There is no doubt that something has to be done,” Milsom emphasised, adding that the Conservatives “have always led the charge” on environmental policy by spearheading key reforms at EU level, such as the recent overhaul of the EU’s carbon market, led by Ian Duncan, a Scottish Tory MEP.
But can the European Conservatives live up to expectations? To find out, EURACTIV sat down with Jan Zahradil, the ACRE’s lead candidate for the EU elections.
The nation-state at the centre
Zahradil has sat in the European Parliament ever since his Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004. He is a staunch defender of the sovereignty of nations, which is at the core of the ACRE’s values.
This translates into what Zahradil calls “a common sense approach to environmental protection,” a principle that also applies to climate policy. In practice, this means Europe should refrain from imposing any kind of “artificial dates or deadlines” on EU member countries, or other world nations for that matter.
“Europe is leading by example” on climate change and should encourage others to follow, Zahradil said. After all, Europe represents only about 10% of overall CO2 emissions so acting alone won’t have much impact, he argued.
“We have very limited leverage on the US, China or India,” Zahradil told EURACTIV. “We can lead by example, we can try to persuade them that they should follow us, but we can’t force them”.
Climate change: no targets, no deadlines
Asked whether he supports the European Commission’s proposal to aim for climate neutrality by 2050, Zahradil’s answer was definite.
“No, I disagree. I think that aiming for a zero-carbon economy by 2050 goes far beyond our commitments made in the Paris Agreement”.
“If we go too far, too fast and too insensitively, it will undermine the very fundamentals of Europe’s economies,” he explained, saying “it could lead to a situation where industry will simply outsource production” outside of Europe, leading to “unemployment and social unrest in Europe”.
Should the EU aim for carbon neutrality at a later date, then? “No. I think setting artificial dates or deadlines doesn’t serve to anything good. So let’s stick with the Paris Agreement.”
For him, the lesson from the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests in France was “very clear”: environmental policy has to have a social policy component. Otherwise, “good intentions” like the French carbon tax, risk backfiring and create social unrest.
“This is probably what happened to Mr Macron who was led by his environmental ambitions. He wanted to show France as an environmentally advanced country that cares about the future and that is able to act very swiftly. And very quickly, he created problems for himself and for big parts of the population in his country.”
The social dimension of environmental policy is the main reason why Europe should tone down its ambition on climate change and refuse any deadlines for 2050, Zahradil argued.
“This could have a devastating impact on our way of life, on our social consensus and stability. It could lead to a situation where industry will simply outsource production to other countries that would lead to unemployment and social unrest in Europe,” he argued.
Does that mean Zahradil opposes the school climate strikes? His answer is ambiguous.
“Basically, it’s a good thing that youngsters are getting involved,” he said. “We have to communicate and engage with them. We should certainly not dismiss them and say they’re too young. That would be very unwise.”
But he added that Europe should not yield to the demands of Greta Thunberg, the young climate activists who called on Europe to cut CO2 emission at least 50% by 2030, and aim for 80% instead, double its current commitment under the Paris Agreement.
“We should be able to explain to them that if things are done too insensitively, it could trigger an internal war with other age groups in society,” Zahradil said in reference to the ‘Yellow Vests’ in France. “It could threaten the social consensus and destabilise society”.
“I know some of them wouldn’t listen and would say ‘This is bullshit, we’ve heard that a thousand times. You don’t care because you’re sixty years old’, etc. I hear this. But the fact that someone is sixty doesn’t make that person less valuable than someone who is twenty,” Zahradil said.
More funding for research and innovation
One area where Zahradil believes the EU can make a difference is innovation and research. Programmes to boost the development of clean technologies can be a springboard for European companies to export green solutions across the world, he argued.
“I would agree to reshuffle budget priorities so that more funds are offered to support science, research and new technologies so that we don’t fall behind other countries,” he said when asked about China’s massive investments into electric vehicles and solar panel manufacturing.
That sits well with the European Commission’s plans to boost EU funding for innovation and research. Under the Commission proposals, the overall size of the pie is set to grow dramatically, despite Brexit, to a €100 billion pot for 2021-2027 from €78 billion in the current seven-year period, which included the UK as a full member.
Asked if he would support the Commission’s proposed budget for the Horizon Europe programme, Zahradil replied: “Yes. Basically, yes.”
Agriculture: Prioritise small-scale farming
The Czech MEP might also surprise environmentalists with his views on agriculture. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which still makes up around 40% of the EU budget, “has to be used in a smart way, in an environmentally-friendly way,” he told EURACTIV.
Zahradil witnessed first-hand the damages wrought by intensive agriculture. In the Czech Republic, he recalled, all former communist cooperatives were privatised and transformed into big agricultural enterprises. “And they are focused purely on production, which is not good for the land, the soil and the environment.”
According to him, “environmental aspects should be taken much more into account” when setting criteria for CAP funding. This means capping EU subsidies that encourage industrial farming, he suggested.
“And frankly speaking, small farms, organic farming and family farming are much better able to provide this careful type of agriculture than the big industrial farms,” he said.
Zahradil, who holds a degree from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, is convinced that the use of chemicals in agriculture must be reduced. But again, limits and deadlines should not be set by the EU, for example, when it comes to pesticides.
“I don’t think the EU should ban them. I don’t think that we should put any upper limit on them. What I would rather see is to encourage farmers to use them less or not to use them at all.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]