Election of Donald Tusk puts EU climate position in doubt

Greenpeace projection on Polish power station. Belchatow, 2013.[Greenpeace Polska/Flickr]

The election of Donald Tusk as head of the European Council comes alongside pressure for Poland to improve its environmental record. The 2030 climate package is due to be adopted before the arrival of the new president, who is more concerned with the European Energy Union than with his climate change commitments.

A senior European Commission official has told euractiv.fr that the election of the Polish premier as President of the European Council represents a “challenge for climate negotiations,” as Poland has systematically tried to hold back European climate policy.

This sentiment is likely to be echoed by the international community ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. The role of the President of the European Council, as described in the rules of procedure, involves organising meetings of the European heads of state and deciding what goes on the agenda.

Diplomatic precautions

Donald Tusk’s nomination is accompanied by an assortment of well-orchestrated diplomatic precautions. According to our sources, France and Germany have insisted that Herman Van Rompuy, the outgoing President of the European Council, should commit to finalising the European position on the 2030 climate and energy package during the next meeting of the European Council, due to take place on 23 and 24 October, in Brussels.

The 2030 climate and energy package, proposed by the Commission earlier this year, remains a working document because it has not yet been discussed by the heads of state. The European stance, which in theory should have been determined last spring, has been delayed, with the crisis in Ukraine dominating European summits since early 2014.

“Everything has been done to ensure that the climate dossier is not a top priority of the new President of the European Council. His credibility could soon be called into question,” one specialist assured. The Climate Change Conference he organised in Warsaw in 2013 was a fiasco. Poland generates 90% of its electricity from coal and its CO2 emissions per capita continue to rise. This is not a good image for the EU, which likes to market itself as a world leader on climate change.

Energy Union versus climate commitments

The success of the negotiations on the climate and energy package is down to the determination of the EU, which has always been a driving force in this domain, but Poland continues to put off signing the joint commitments for the next stage of the package: which CO2 emissions to reduce by 2030, and what course to adopt for 2050. The delay has not been constructive, and it is now urgent that the EU define its common position, even if this will hold less weight than that of the United States and China at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference.

Poland, for its part, is calling for the establishment of a European Energy Union, with a central purchasing body for gas, which would act in much the same way as the old ECSC, the European Coal and Steel Community, formed in 1954.

“It is true that we supported the candidature of Donald Tusk, and that we support his paper on the European Energy Union, but it is directly opposed to his climate commitments. Poland is trying to influence the discussion in return for certain concessions,” a French diplomatic source revealed.

Poland would be prepared to sign an ambitious objective to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030, in return for concessions elsewhere. The French ambassador summed it up in these terms: “Poland is ready to board the climate change train, but in the smoking car”.

Aurélie Faure, a researcher at the French Institute of International Affairs, states that “Poland and other Eastern countries have always been very entrenched on climate matters, and have resisted making the shift to renewables”. This is where Poland could obtain concessions from the rest of the EU. In exchange for giving the green light to the global objective of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, Warsaw could see its obligations to develop the renewables sector relaxed. The Commission proposed a target of 27% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2030, but as this will not be enforced as a binding commitment in every member state, certain countries may well fall short of the objective.

>> Read: Warsaw breaks ranks with Poland on 2030 climate goals

A multi-layered strategy

“At a European level, we see that the countries in a position of responsibility are more inclined to make concessions,” one diplomat states, recalling the moment in 2005 when the Eastern Enlargement Programme was accepted under the British presidency, in return for modifications to the UK rebate. This view is shared by the head of Climate and Energy at WWF, Pierre Cannet, who believes that the election of Donald Tusk calls for a different reaction. “He has had to deal with powerful lobbyists in his own country, and as President of the European Council, he will have to deal with others. If the member states are determined on the matter of climate change, there will be no problem getting the issues onto the agenda. But they should take care not to hide behind one man. The EU works in complex ways and each country must take its share of responsibility,” the climate expert warns.

Common purchasing of gas up for debate

The question of the European Energy Union, which is currently on the table, will undoubtedly emerge as a major by-product of a climate agreement. The central purchasing body for gas forms the backbone of Tusk’s propositions, and though its realisation may well prove complicated, it is intended to sidestep the Russian threat to switch off the flow of gas to Eastern Europe. “An EU-wide gas purchasing body would risk completely contravening the rules of international commerce and the WTO. So this is more of a political threat than a concept that could have tangible consequences for contracts under private law,” Aurélie Faure points out.

The fact that Europe’s top jobs have largely gone to countries that rely on Russian gas, like Germany, which retains the Presidency of the European Parliament, Italy, which holds the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and Poland, with the new President of the European Council, could cause the Energy Union to gain preference over climate issues in the next 5 years.

European heads of state have chosen the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to become the next President of the European Council, from 1 December 2014. Mr Tusk hosted the 19th UN Climate Change Conference in 2013, amid serious questions over his own country's environmental performance. He even changed his minister for the Environment right in the middle of the conference, appointing Maciej Grabowski, an economist and exponent of shale gas extraction. Mr Grabowski announced in June that around 60 exploratory wells had been dug in Poland. According to the American energy minister, Poland sits on one third of Europe's shale gas reserves.

European Council

Rules of procedure of the Council (cf article 3)

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