The Green Deal: Origins and Evolution
Céline Charveriatsenior associate and Professor
When Ursula von der Leyen promised in July 2019 to launch the Green Deal within the first 100 days of her mandate, she surprised many commentators in the Brussels bubble. The choice of member states to appoint Ursula von der Leyen, a politician from Germany’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party, as president of the European Commission was not expected to result in revolutionary policy announcements on environmental issues. In 2019, Germany — which is expected to have difficulty reaching its 2020 targets for greenhouse gas emissions — was viewed as a serious liability to increasing European ambitions for fighting climate change. The CDU’s strategy towards the Green party, which was based on the notion of realism, led to considerable reluctance for increased European ambitions as long as the existing targets had not been implemented.
Yet Ursula von der Leyen will not settle for greening her agenda around the edges, as her predecessor did. In her December 2019 speech, she affirmed that the goal of the Green Deal is to “reconcile the economy with our planet, to reconcile the way we produce and the way we consume with our planet and to make it work for our people.” The legislative themes and proposals outlined in this first speech not only include a climate law that would ratify the target of climate neutrality by 2050, but also biodiversity, pollution, innovation, public and private finance, a just transition, and trade. In doing this, she makes these subjects central to her policy, responding to calls from the scientific community and a growing share of the electorate.
At the end of 2018, The European Environment Agency (EEA) had just released its report on the implementation of the Seventh Environment Action Programme for the European Union. Reading it gives cause for concern; the EEA predicts that two thirds of targets will not be met in 2020. Among the most serious failures is the protection of nature as no target will be met except for increasing forest stocks. 1 Eurostat’s analysis of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) makes the same observation about the disappearance of birds from agricultural areas, ammonia emissions, waste production, ocean acidification, etc… It therefore seems obvious that the policy of the two previous Commissions has failed to meet objectives and that a new approach must be taken. At the same time, the IPCC report has warned the international community of the impacts of an increased average temperature beyond 1.5 degrees, implying a need to accelerate the implementation of greenhouse gas mitigation policies. Many other voices from civil society, such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Climate Action Network Europe (CAN Europe), and Think2030, are also demanding a change of course.
This feeling of urgency is also coming from public opinion. The Eurobarometer conducted before the 2019 elections shows that European citizens are increasingly concerned with climate change and the environment; this issue comes second only to growth and is tied with immigration as their main concerns. 2 In the IPSOS MORI survey, 77% of potential voters identify climate change as an important criteria for making their choice. 3 These voters also see a clear added value to Europe’s action in this area, which is likely due to certain environmental policy successes such as the reduction of acid rain, the cleaning of coastal waters, and waste management, all of which clearly highlight the need for cross-border collaboration and the value of having a lever for change able to put pressure on member states that are reluctant to take environmental action. These are likely the reasons why European citizens are voting for Green parties at a higher rate than in previous elections, with these parties gaining 25 more seats in the European Parliament than in 2014. 4 In her speech to the Parliament on December 11, 2019, Ursula von der Leyen directly refers to these election results to justify her new policy: “It is the people of Europe who have called us to take decisive action against climate change. (…) It is for them that we are presenting such an ambitious Green Deal for Europe.” 5
But Ursula von der Leyen’s Copernican revolution, in contrast to her party’s political agenda, is above all the consequence of the political circumstances surrounding her nomination. The results of the election are such (see above) that the President proposed by the Council must count on some of the votes of the Party of European Socialists to obtain the support of the Parliament. The outgoing coalition of the EPP and Liberals no longer has an absolute majority in the new European Parliament. The EPP, burned by its previous experience, has made it very clear that it no longer wants to give carte blanche like the one given to President Junker when he was elected in 2014, who they believe betrayed them. This is why they insist on a government agreement with very concrete strategy and policy elements. Franz Timmermans, whose ambitions on sustainability were thwarted during the previous Commission, is throwing his weight behind it in order to tip the balance. It is also important to note that his party’s stance, the PES, has dramatically evolved since the previous elections, placing a strong emphasis on the inextricable links between economic, environmental and social issues within the SDGs.
This is how the Green Deal was adopted by Ursula von der Leyen. This concept was coined in 2007 on the other side of the Atlantic by a journalist, Thomas Friedman, who was the first to propose the concept of a “Green New Deal”. 6 This term was quickly borrowed by several British NGOs, including the New Economics Foundation, 7 and appears in the publication commissioned by the European Green Foundation from the Wuppertal Institute. 8 The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) also published a report calling for a global Green New Deal in 2009. 9 The need to stimulate the economy after the 2008-2009 crisis is central to the original concept, hence its clear link with Franklin Roosevelt’s famous New Deal. It is also interesting to note that the New Deal, which was launched during the 1929 crisis, is seen by many American commentators as a turning point in American public policy on the environment with major initiatives such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). 10
Yet in 2019, there is no economic crisis. The economic growth rate is 1.5%. It is therefore more of a structural transformation that NGOs are recommending when they call for the Green Deal: “The ‘Green New Deal’ should pursue a positive agenda that meets citizens’ desire for clean air, clean water, access to diverse nature, plastic-free oceans and non-hazardous products.” 11 Likewise, in the Green Party’s platform for the European elections we find my wording, “Europe has the opportunity to become a world leader in the just transition to carbon neutrality and the circular economy through a ‘Green New Deal’.”
The gamble of synthesis
When Ursula von der Leyen delivered her speech, she was attempting to achieve a synthesis that would win the approval of the other political parties in her majority, the liberals and the conservatives. She therefore focused her speech on sustainability as a driver for economic growth. The vice-president in charge of economic issues, Valdis Dombrovskis, is a highly orthodox economist, and was a fervent supporter of the harshest austerity in his country. This is therefore a far cry from the degrowth theories favored by environmental NGOs. These NGOs nevertheless enthusiastically welcomed the announcements of the future President, believing that the new direction proposed by Ursula von der Leyen was a unique opportunity to put the environmental agenda at the heart of the new Commission’s priorities.
This hope for synthesis in terms of economic policy can also be seen in the European Commission’s adoption in 2020 of an “annual sustainable growth strategy” and the attempt to better integrate sustainability into the European semester process, during which the European Commission issues recommendations for structural reform for each member state based on a table of indicators and the objectives of various European policies. Another attempt to synthesize the Green Deal concerns the digital transition, which is presented as the “twin sister” of the green transition.
Ursula von der Leyen’s gamble proved to be a winning one. The Parliament approved the Green Deal in a resolution that received 482 votes. 12 As for the European Council, it “has taken note” of the Green Deal in its December 2019 conclusions, though not without a certain amount of irritation from some members. As the legal form of the Green Deal is a strategy by the European Commission, there is no obligation for member states to give prior approval, and some have complained about the lack of consultation on the matter. This relative lack of prior consultation continues to plague the Green Deal’s implementation, which, almost three years after its launch, is barely used by member states, who prefer national schemes that are more or less in line with the Green Deal’s main objectives. Not surprisingly, a large portion of national civil servants say they are unfamiliar with the Green Deal, according to the Green Deal Barometer survey, published in 2020 by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).
Despite this deficit, the European Commission managed to reach ambitious agreements during the discussion of most of its proposals, starting with the climate law, which demonstrates the support of most member states for the underlying concepts of the Green Deal. There are, however, two major exceptions to note: the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the taxonomy of private finance. These are two issues that member states agree should be revised downwards to the point where the objectives of these two initiatives are in jeopardy. These two dossiers perfectly illustrate the difficulty of transforming this spirit of synthesis into legislative proposals that are coherent both in terms of environmental integrity as well as political viability.
An agenda strongly shaped by international realities
The Green Deal was conceived of and implemented as a domestic agenda responding to political needs within Europe. Its emergence, however, also has its roots in international dynamics.
In 2019, the European Union is suffering from a post-Paris disillusionment. To begin with, the compromises that had to be made to successfully conclude the agreement make it difficult for an effective virtuous cycle to emerge between IPCC reports and increased national commitments to reduce greenhouse gasses. The sluggish nature of international political time creates ever greater dissonance with what the science says. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, less than 4 days after the Paris Agreement went into effect, also sent shock waves through the European multilateralist intelligentsia. The announcement in 2017 of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, instigated by Donald Trump, only confirmed the need for the European Union to abandon a solely multilateralist approach, whether on environmental or other issues. This is all the more tempting as unilateralism had already proven its worth, such as in the area of standards governing chemical products (REACH) or automobiles (EURO IV). In these sectors, European legislation has in fact led to these standards being adopted worldwide. It is this normative power linked to the internal market, considered more effective than multilateral action, that the EU wants to use with the Green Deal. With the Green Deal, this new unilateralism is clearly illustrated by the Commission’s decision in 2019 to implement a carbon adjustment mechanism at the borders, a subject that was still taboo only a few years earlier. This introduction of defensive unilateral tools against states that refuse to play the game in terms of national commitments reflects the end of a certain benevolent innocence in the European Commission’s approach and echoes certain member states’ protectionist temptations, led by France.
Some analysts (CHECK) also attribute the Green Deal to concerns about the competitiveness of the environmental goods and services sector in Europe. Because Europe cannot easily compete with other countries in terms of abundance of raw materials or cheap labor, the future of its industry is primarily in innovative, capital-intensive sectors, including green technologies. The competitive loss of European-produced photovoltaic panels on world markets is a wake-up call. In addition to anti-dumping measures against Chinese photovoltaic panels, the European Union’s strategic response includes overhauling research and development policies in an attempt to boost green public investment and a reindustrialization strategy.
The global economic crisis linked to COVID has also allowed for the implementation of a very ambitious green recovery program, which was not on the agenda in 2019. The very particular circumstances of the crisis led the Commission and the Council to break down solid barriers like those protecting the Stability and Growth Pact. The crisis has also allowed the European Commission to increase its powers to independently mobilize funds in order to finance counter-cyclical investment programs in member states. The Green Deal has therefore become a program of structural transformation combined with major investment programs which stands in contrast to the much more modest Junker Plan in its sums and ambition to reform for sustainability.
The supply crises caused by COVID have cruelly highlighted the EU’s lack of autonomy in certain key sectors and value chains for both its economy and decarbonization. This dynamic, which is more sovereigntist and less free-market, has clearly been reinforced by the energy crisis related to the war in Ukraine and is now leading to the emergence of a European diplomacy that is focused on the security of resource supply.
This same crisis is also driving the European Commission to put the issue of fossil fuel dependency on the table. The Commission is also beginning to talk about sobriety and focusing on reducing energy demand, both of which had been overlooked in the first two years of the Green Deal for fear of creating counterproductive reactions among citizens and member states. In doing so, the Green Deal comes much closer to the original vision of a program of systemic change, where supply and demand are addressed, and where eco-sufficiency is no longer a taboo. The Green Deal is now also benefiting from a real paradigm shift in the European institutions, notably in terms of the relationship to globalization, but also in terms of stronger state interventionism in the economy.
A missed opportunity with citizens
The Green Deal, however, still suffers from a democratic deficit that is all the more problematic because its success depends on profound changes in consumption and production practices in all companies, including SMBs, and among citizens. At the end of his speech announcing the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised “a new deal for the American people”.
However, this dimension of a new deal is largely absent from the Green Deal, which is not designed as a new deal with European citizens and other stakeholders. The European Commission has abandoned a large-scale communication policy on the Green Deal in favor of Next Generation Europe, its post-COVID recovery program. Neither the Climate Pact announced in 2019 nor the environmental dimension of the European Citizens’ Convention allow for the societal participation required for developing such a deal due to a lack of resources and political will. While the Green Deal does include redistribution measures for the poorest, these are not presented as part of a new “socio-ecological contract” between leaders and citizens. The Green Deal also does not entail a new deal with nature, as described in the thinking of Michel Serres. There is certainly a stronger will to protect biodiversity or to restore nature, but this remains above all utilitarian and based on the notion of ecosystem services. The European Commission uses the word “ecocide”, but no large-scale initiative, which would translate into a shift to anti-speciesism, is present in the Green Deal’s agenda.
On the other hand, the European Commission, in response to climate marches as well as through the German Constitutional Court’s recognition of intergenerational equity, seems ready to explore the modalities of a new deal between generations, which could be acknowledged in the Treaties, thereby enshrining a paradigm shift in the European Union’s legal order.
Halfway through the term of the European Commission chaired by Ursula von der Leyen, the Green Deal seems destined to last. But its legal weakness — since it is only based on a communication — could prove fatal in the next European elections, as could this missed opportunity to reach out to European citizens, who are likely to be disappointed or even cynical because of the lack of information on the progress made. What will remain is the numerous legislation and regulations that result from it. But civilization cannot be changed by decree. Consequently, a priority for the continuity of the Green Deal should be to initiate a much deeper engagement with European citizens, in multiple forms and modalities, with the active collaboration of civil society, local authorities and the private sector. In her recent State of the Union speech, Ursula von der Leyen expressed the willingness of the European Commission to continue using the Citizens’ Convention model beyond the Conference on the Future of Europe. Let us hope that this announcement will bring about a beneficial change of direction, which would finally make the Green Deal a new socio-ecological contract between leaders and citizens, between member states, between generations, and between man and nature.
- Environmental indicator report 2018 In support to the monitoring of the Seventh Environment Action Programme , EEA Report, No 19/2018.
- European Parliament, Closer to the Citizens, Closer to the Ballot, Eurobarometer, April 2019.
- Frédéric Simon, Climate change will be key issue in EU elections, poll shows, Euractiv, 16 April 2019.
- Crum, Ben. (2020). Party groups and ideological cleavages in the European Parliament after the 2019 elections. 10.4324/9780367816926-6.
- Speech by President von der Leyen in the Plenary of the European Parliament at the debate on the European Green Deal, 11 December 2019.
- Friedman, Thomas L. The Power of Green, April 15, 2007.
- Andrew Simms, Ann Pettifor, Caroline Lucas, Charles Secrett, Colin Hines, Jeremy Legget, Larry Elliott, Richard Murphy, Tony Juniper, A Green New Deal, New Economics Foundation, 20 July 2008.
- Green European Foundation, A Green New Deal for Europe – Towards Green Modernisation in the face of Crisis.
- Unep, Global Green New Deal, Policy Brief, March 2009.
- Neil M. Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement, Oxford University Press, 12 déc. 2007.
- EEB Summer 2019 Newsletter.
- European Parliament, Parliament supports European Green Deal and pushes for even higher ambitions, Press Reseeases, 15 January 2020.
To cite the article
Céline Charveriat, The Green Deal: Origins and Evolution, Jan 2023, 14.
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