Climate change sidelined at EU-US summit

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Transatlantic divisions over how best to tackle climate change could put a chill on a key EU-US summit meeting on 30 April, overshadowing expected progress on trade and air-travel issues.

  • No climate deal expected

The summit was originally seen as an opportunity for the EU and the US to align their positions on climate change in the run-up to the G8 gathering in June and the conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) at the end of the year. 

However both sides have played down the importance of the meeting as doubts were cast on the likelihood of agreeing on a text of any significant level of ambition. 

While the EU was hoping to engage the US in a global framework for cutting CO2 emissions, the US wants discussions to focus on the promotion of new technologies, such as carbon sequestration and storage, and has clearly indicated that it will not commit to binding targets unless other large emitters such as China and India follow suit. 

  • Progress on trade

Things should look brighter on the economic side, with the two economic giants expected to sign a pact aimed slashing remaining trade barriers and harmonising norms in the automotive, pharmaceutical and chemical sectors, among others. 

The deal will include the establishment of a high-level ‘transatlantic economic council’ to oversee the implementation of regulatory agreements. Media reports suggest that the council could be chaired by Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen, although some believe that Alexander Italianer, one of the Commission’s two secretary-generals, could be chosen for the role to avert bickering between the directorate-generals for trade, external relations, industry and internal market. 

The creation of a genuine ‘transatlantic single market’, which could boost GDP by around 3.5% on both sides of the Atlantic, is one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favoured projects during her six months at the helm of the EU (EURACTIV 05/01/07). The summit is expected to get the ball rolling, while more sensitive issues such as ironing out the differences in European and American financial-market regulations, patents and intellectual property law, will be put aside until the next meeting. 

Discussions will also centre on advancing global trade talks within the WTO, stalled since last July. Major trading powers have said that they aim to finalise negotiations by the end of the year, but the EU and the US have so far been unsuccessful in closing the gap on agricultural subsidies and tariffs. 

  • Open skies: 

EU and US leaders are expected to sign an ‘open skies’ deal, aimed at removing restrictions on the number of flights able to operate the transatlantic route (EURACTIV 22/03/07). The EU will be seeking firm guarantees from the US that it will open up its domestic market and lift restrictions on foreign ownership of aircraft as part of second-stage talks before November 2010. In more than five years of negotiations, Washington has refused to budge on these demands. 

They will also tackle a number of issues that have persistently hampered air travel between the two continents, including the ‘en masse’ introduction of hefty security measures since the 2001 terrorist attacks (see LinksDossier on Transport security).

  • US visa restrictions: 

EU leaders will also press the US to extend the US visa-waiver programme to citizens of new EU states and Greece by September, stressing that all EU citizens must be treated equally. 

  • Passenger data: 

Discussions will also touch upon the issue of access to personal information on passengers flying to the US. An interim agreement was struck in October 2006 but will expire in July (EURACTIV 06/10/07). Failure to conclude a new deal could cause havoc at airports as airlines would be caught up in the middle of contradictory EU rules on data privacy and US anti-terror requirements. 

"To be honest, now we are concentrating more on the global agenda for the transatlantic marketplace because we saw that there was more, let's say, potential to achieve results in this summit there than in the other issue," Commission President José Manuel Barroso told Reuters, commenting on the thorny issue of climate change. "But…we certainly will keep the debate on climate change as one of our main topics with our American partners," he added. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's economic aide Jens Weidmann said that he thought it would be "asking for a bit too much" to expect the US to sign up to binding CO2 emissions reduction targets, adding: "What we will be looking at in Washington is a first step forward." This could include some kind of text which makes clear that climate change is a serious problem and that both sides will engage in further efforts, he explained. 

US Ambassador to the EU Boyden Gray agreed that "the summit will not be a defining moment" for the fight against climate change. 

Rod Hunter, senior director for international trade, energy and the environment at the US National Security Council, said that the joint declaration is likely to centre on promoting new technologies designed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, while providing new economic opportunities. "There is, I think, general agreement about the importance of developing the innovative technologies which will help us transition to fewer greenhouse gas emissions," he said. 

But Ambassador Gray highlighted "differences of opinion" over the weight given to new technologies versus binding targets. 

He added that the real "meat" would be in the signature of a pact creating a transatlantic economic council: "There will be meat on the bone," he said, adding: "The credit has to go to Mrs Merkel." 

On visa restrictions he indicated that legislation to include all EU nationals in the US visa-waiver programme "should be done by the end of this year", but stressed: "It is not the US administration, but the Congress which sets the rules." 

BusinessEurope, the EU employers’ lobby, said that "a step change" is needed in the approach taken towards creating a barrier-free transatlantic market and called for "a more binding approach to co-operation on regulatory matters between our two continents". 

But a new study by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that European and American citizens are unsure of the benefits of abolishing trade restrictions between their economies. The idea received a mere 54% support in Europe and 65% in the US. 

Nevertheless, on the whole, the study revealed that the broad majority of Europeans and Americans have overcome the tensions triggered by the US-led war in Iraq and are in favour of closer transatlantic co-operation, especially on climate change, energy supply, preventing nuclear proliferation and promoting democracy worldwide. 

EU leaders will be flying to Washington to meet the Bush administration with a view to further boosting the €2.25 trillion transatlantic economic relationship and debating key areas of co-operation, including climate change, energy security and foreign policy issues. 

Last month, EU heads of state and government adopted an ambitious energy/climate- change package (see LinksDossier), that commits them to cutting CO2 emissions by at least 20% by 2012, and have since been pushing hard for other large economic powers, including the US, China and India, to agree to comparable reductions. 

  • 30 April 2007: EU-US summit meeting in Washington.
  • 4 May:  Presentation of the Working Group III report of IPCC Climate Change 2007.
  • 6-8 June 2007:  G8 meeting in Germany.

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