Europe must adopt an ambitious industrial policy aligned with its climate agenda by investing in clean technologies, and introducing a carbon tariff at the EU’s external border in order to protect industries against environmental dumping, says Bas Eickhout, the lead candidate for the Greens in the European elections.
Bas Eickhout is a Dutch Member of the European Parliament. Together with his German colleague Ska Keller, he is co-leading the Greens’ campaign for the European elections. Eickhout spoke to Pavol Szalai, senior editor at EURACTIV Slovakia.
At the March EU summit, leaders committed to reach climate neutrality but without giving themselves a deadline. Why is that?
The European Council is divided and – as usually in such a case – it is kicking the can down the road.
They know they have to come up with conclusions. All countries that signed the Paris Agreement committed to proposing a long-term strategy. All European countries signed it and they were all celebrating its importance.
But this is the problem with a lot of governments: They love to celebrate the Paris Agreement and when Donald Trump stepped out of it they bashed him and said they would take the lead. And then they can’t find an agreement even on the simple question of a long-term projection.
This is the typical example of where European governments stand on climate. They talk a lot about it and pretend to be very ambitious, but in reality, they are divided and are totally not delivering on what many people in the streets are asking for.
The EU is expected to deliver on its 2020 emissions reduction goal. It is also true that Europe produces only 10% of global emissions while China and India’s emissions continue to rise.
Yes, Europe has done a couple of things, but it is not doing enough. Every country that committed to Paris is coming up with a reduction plan. Also, the richer countries need to take the first steps – it’s a matter of fair share.
As for China, there is a discussion on when its emissions should peak. Of course, we need to have that as fast as possible. But if we as Europeans want to set an example for the rest of the world, then we have to make sure that our own house is in order.
Scientific analyses say that neither the world in general, nor Europe in particular are doing enough for Paris. Moreover, if we are compliant with the Paris Agreement, we can ask the others to do the same.
Is Europe not doing enough also because of the Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia?
Partly. When we had a discussion on the 2030 target of -40% (emissions reduction as compared to 1990) in 2014, it was before the Paris Agreement. Paris was eventually more ambitious than people expected beforehand.
If in 2015 we were celebrating Paris – and I also heard the Visegrad countries say how important it was – then we should have looked critically at what we had decided a year before. Maybe it had not been enough.
In 2014, the difficulty of getting to such a target was certainly also because of the Visegrad countries. But there were also problems with other countries. Consistency is the problem for many of them.
It is too easy to blame the Visegrad. Look at Germany. It was one of the biggest obstacles when we were doing the policy for cars and trucks. A country that has a big mouth on climate becomes very difficult as soon as its own industry is being hit.
Germany also was a problem for the last EU summit conclusions. A lot of countries are talking about climate change in general terms but are not delivering concrete actions.
More than 500 European and national industrial associations have recently called for a new industrial policy, while France and Germany have also made a common proposal. Is an ambitious climate policy consistent with an ambitious industrial policy?
Not necessarily, but it can be. It is important that all the European countries realise we are very vulnerable. We are import-dependent, we don’t have many energy and material resources. We have a big consumer market – certainly in comparison to the rest of the world.
But Africa, Latin America and even the US have more of their own resources. That’s an important reason for us to think of future economy as less dependent on resources. We have to think about future jobs.
Europe can lead in innovation, we still have that edge. If we combine it with resource efficiency, we can deliver on both climate and future jobs.
Of course, you can do industrial and climate policies separately. But it would be totally stupid. If would not be in our interest, it would not be good for the climate and for our future.
The basic attitude of the Greens is to combine the two. Try to think of the industrial agenda as part of the climate agenda. Even the Commission’s analysis says the carbon-neutral economy can be reached by 2050 with an additional one million new jobs.
Do you agree with the Franco-German proposal on industrial policy?
I find it too vague. But I do agree that Europe should be more actively thinking of industrial policy. We have been very naïve.
In our entire attitude. We had the very neoliberal idea: the markets will work, we liberalise, we privatise, and then the solutions will come.
Are you in favour of a carbon tax at the EU’s border?
If we agree to be less naïve and maintain some of the industry within Europe, then we can think of clever measures. I would already say that we haven’t done a very good job with our current emissions trading system. By giving out free allowances, we are more or less undermining the trading.
The price of emission allowances is increasing…
Thanks to the reform, we jumped from €5 to €20 per tonne of CO2. But that is still too low.
The IPCC report says we need higher prices to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. We can improve our trading system. If no free allowances are allocated, much more scarcity will be created. The price will then be a good reflection of the scarcity.
At the same time, we will need to protect our own market. And that can be done by the carbon adjustment factor on the border. That is a combination of climate agenda and industrial policy.
Do you oppose free allowances for industries at risk of carbon leakage?
We don’t need free allowances as soon as we do the border adjustment. They have been given to industries to protect them from international competitors. If we increase the price of the imports and reach a level-playing field, they don’t need free allowances anymore. It is either one or the other.
Slovakia has a strong steel industry, like other EU countries. If you tell them the price of €20 per tonne of CO2 is too low, they will be furious. They support the energy transformation, but argue it is costly and difficult to achieve technology-wise. A lot of jobs depend on the steel industry and new jobs won’t be created automatically if the price of CO2 increases. How would you deal with that?
The biggest market for steel production is still within Europe. There is fair competition here. The problem quite often is the cheap imported steel, quite often a result of dumping.
We have to be much tougher against dumping and that’s why we need protection at the border. But if we really want to be honest about the carbon price, it should also account for transport. Steel coming from far away has more and more difficulties in becoming competitive. In that sense, climate policies help local production.
You are rightly asking about the transformation of the steel sector. That’s why we have been pushing for innovation funds within the EU ETS. Once we have the trading system in place and a higher price of carbon, the big chunk of the revenues should be used for innovation.
The funds should help sectors having difficulties in getting to zero emissions. The steel sector itself is coming up with ideas on how to do that in its 2050 roadmaps. Research efforts should be aimed at breakthrough technologies. The industry working the fastest will produce the cheapest steel. It will decrease both CO2 emissions and costs. It will pay less for the emissions and become more competitive. By giving free allowances, you are killing that competition.
Industrial associations request a Commissioner for Industrial Policy in the new Commission. Do you support this idea?
There should be a Climate and Industry Commissioner. That’s the next challenge. We have taken steps on energy. A lot needs to be done still in energy and countries themselves need to act.
There is a strong national competence in energy policy. The next step is getting a green new deal on the European level. It means to a large extent investment in our green industry.
According to this logic, there should also be a Transport and Climate Commissioner and an Agriculture and Climate Commissioner.
Climate change is one of the crucial challenges of the world and of Europe. So, all these policies should be mainstreamed with climate. Paris Agreement is forcing us to go a zero-emission economy. In transport a big challenge is long-range train connections.
As Europe, we are failing massively in linking countries with good train connections. I was in Slovakia last winter and the faster connections from Bratislava are more difficult. And the future agriculture will have to adapt better to weather extremes. Farming monocultures are much more vulnerable to them.
Do you see this Commission’s achievements on energy and climate policy as a success or a failure?
It was a middle ground. When the climate targets were agreed in October 2014, this Commission had not been there yet. But all the legislation it has proposed ever since, followed the 2014 conclusions.
In a way they were the civil servants of the Council. The Commission certainly contributed to the Paris Agreement, but I would go too far if I said this Commission has delivered Paris. There were a lot of developments globally why the Agreement was a success.
The “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package was a huge legislative agenda.
In renewables and energy efficiency, it was based on the 2014 targets.
Was it not ambitious enough?
It wasn’t. We as the Parliament made it more ambitious. On the EU ETS, even the Council was more ambitious than what the Commission proposed – that doesn’t happen so often.
The only thing the Commission did itself was emissions from cars and trucks. But even there, on both files, Council and Parliament were more ambitious.
Yes, the Commission took a lot of legislative action, but the level of ambition was always on the low side. Why? The leadership of the Commission did not want to make climate another fighting file with the Council. The priority was not there. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Secretary General Martin Selmayr decided on which files they push for a fight.
Migration, for example?
Yes, not climate.
Has Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President for the Energy Union, been a strong Commissioner?
He is a good diplomat.
Is he also a good negotiator?
Yes, a good diplomat. He’s good at bringing people together. But he is not a climate fighter. I didn’t see the climate change urgency and the need for an innovation edge to make sure future jobs will be in Europe.
He has defended the Commission’s proposals based on the 2014 targets and other proposals which were not very ambitious. The Commission has not always been helpful in increasing the ambition. And Šefčovič has been co-responsible for that.
Green parties in the Visegrad countries are very weak, at best. Why don’t you have stronger partners there?
True, in Slovakia the Green Party is very weak. But you chose Zuzana Čaputová as your president. She stands for change and that makes me optimistic.
In the Czech Republic, that space has been taken by the pirates who do have a very green agenda. And they are doing very well.
In Poland, it is very difficult given the very binary debate between the Law and Justice (government) and the Civic Platform (opposition). But the Greens have joined a broad coalition in the opposition and we see a chance to have them elected in the upcoming European elections as part of that platform.
In Hungary we have LMP (Politics Can Be Different) which is not doing bad. Hungary is a difficult country, because of Fidesz’s dominance intensified by the electoral system. LMP’s campaigning on the climate has gained momentum.
None of these parties are in government. How do you explain the lack of interest from voters?
Polls show climate as well as air pollution are issues in the Visegrad countries. That’s why I don’t like singling them out.
In Central European countries, the green parties have not yet managed to get a credible image beyond the green issues. In all the countries, where we do well as Greens, we are seen not only as green parties.
The green issues give us strength, but the broader agenda – economic vision, human rights, rule of law – brings the credibility at a higher level. If the electoral system makes it difficult, the credibility stays low and you are only seen as a green party.
It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. The Czech Pirates managed to overcome the problem, which is fascinating. We work with them although they don’t have MEPs in yet.
But Slovakia is difficult and I don’t understand. Although we have seen an important change: last weekend the independent and pro-environment Zuzana Čaputová has been elected as president.
Ms. Čaputová fought against an illegal landfill as an NGO activist and had environmental justice as her campaign priority. Is she your ally in Slovakia?
Absolutely. Her focus on green activism and fighting corruption, makes her an ally in our progressive aim to change Europe to the benefit of people and planet.
It also makes it difficult because of the country’s dependence on industry, doesn’t it?
A future-oriented industry needs good climate policy.
The conservatives are the biggest danger for industry. They are pretending we can keep it as it is. We can never compete with China’s labour force. We can only be competitive if we are innovative. The conservatives are in that sense more dangerous for your future jobs than greens.
That said, I am absolutely aware we did not manage to pass the message. But in Slovakia, I feel the pride for the nature. There is a green attitude, but we need more time.
In the Baltic states we do well, we are in government in Lithuania. In Poland we hope to do well. In Slovenia, we have a new coalition of Greens and Pirates.
What do you think about the proposals on strengthening the rule of law in the EU Member States? MEPs call for a regular review of the rule of law by the European Commission, while Germany and Belgium propose a peer review. And Manfred Weber from the EPP mulls the idea of a commission of independent experts. Which of these proposals can be the most efficient in your view?
We only have the Article 7 procedure, which is an important, but a harsh option. Article 7 is important where it is necessary – Hungary and Poland. But we need far more to be able to act sober.
Article 7 has been quite efficient in Poland.
Article 7 is immediately goes to the throat, by taking away voting powers of a member state in the Council of Ministers.
It’s not my favourite game to play. You want early mechanisms to see and correct developments in a country. There needs to be a regular check by the European Commission, this is one of the proposals of the European Parliament.
But it needs to be – and this is our main criticism of the Commission – done objectively. And sorry, but the Commission did not do that. They made it a party-political game. They are tougher on Poland, because the government there is from a party which is not coming from the two big political groups – the EPP or the S&D.
Is the Commission discriminating against Poland?
The Commission is absolutely not fair. In that sense they are providing arguments to countries saying Brussels is not fair. This Commission has been waiting way too long to take action towards Hungary. And that is a problem.
How can you ensure that regular checks won’t be politically motivated?
There must be a role for an independent check. Of course, in the end, the Commission is the guardian of the Treaties, it has the legislative powers. The Commission has the political responsibility to act, but to be tough.
There should be a role for independent legal experts to make sure the analyses are done in an objective way. We already have the Venice Committee, an important player which has independent legal experts. Let’s also try not to make too many layers which are doing the same thing. The Venice Committee has come up with recommendations for Romania to adjust its legislation and it is good. They are doing good work, but the government has to act.
We have to think cleverly how to combine the different mechanisms we already have. We have to make sure the whole mechanism will be tougher, more objective, with legal experts and also with a European Commission that is much more following up on these practices early on.
Let’s be frank – we have been too late on Hungary. And looking at the developments there, it really has gone so far that you can ask whether there still is a public debate.
The Parliament voted the final deal on the Single-Use Plastics Directive. Why is it important?
The deal with the Member States is a success. It will improve how we deal with plastics in a major way.
But we need to take further actions on plastics with the next Commission, because the Directive tackles plastics at the end of the chain. We have a huge problem in the production and packaging, at the beginning of the chain. This also has to do with the pricing mechanisms that are not in place.
The next Commission should look at ways to avoid the huge production of plastics in the first place We have not solved the plastic problem.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]