Green Deal founders amid shifting policy focus

Green Deal founders amid shifting policy focus

A leaked intergovernmental priority list suggests environmental matters will be relegated below issues of defence, immigration and food security in the next legislative cycle, while Hungary has made it clear the Green Deal will not be a priority when it takes over the EU Council presidency in July, and Belgian premier Alexander De Croo has warned of the huge cost of implementation.

An internal working draft of the EU’s Strategic Agenda for 2024 to 2029, widely circulated in Brussels earlier this week, sets out three priority areas, with the first being the promotion ‘strong and secure Europe’, where actions include reducing external trade dependencies and building up military defensive capability.

There is no explicit mention of the Green Deal, and ‘accelerating the energy transition’ is presented in section two – ‘a prosperous and competitive Europe’ – as a means to increase Europe’s energy sovereignty, while moving towards a ‘more circular and resource-efficient’ economy is a way of reducing ‘strategic dependencies’.

“The disappearance of the fight against air and water pollution, as well as the absence of the promotion of sustainable agriculture in the leaked 2024 Strategic Agenda, are both deeply troubling,” said Faustine Bas-Defossez, director for health, nature and environment at the European Environmental Bureau, an NGO umbrella group.

The agenda, which government leaders are expected to discuss next week at a European Council meeting focusing on competitiveness and finalise at another summit in June, is not a legal document, but is intended to guide the legislative agenda of the EU and its new Commission, which is due to take office in the autumn.

There was little sign that Budapest is enthusiastic about taking forward the remaining Green Deal files when it takes over the rotating EU Council presidency. Minister of State for International Communication and Relations Zoltán Kovács briefed journalists in Brussels on Thursday, making it clear that Hungary’s role as “honest broker” would not prevent it from vetoing legislation it felt was not in its national interests.

Asked about Hungary’s intentions regarding environmental policy proposals still on the table, and its broader position on the Green Deal of the outgoing von der Leyen Commission, Kovács argued that “unfounded proposals for the future of Europe concerning greenhouse gas emissions and so on” lacked common sense and were “impracticable”.

Moreover, they amounted to an “existential threat” to European farmers, he said, pointing to a wave of protests across Europe that prompted EU officials to backtrack on environmental policy. “I don’t believe that the green deal or agricultural issues are ideological – it’s…common sense,” Kovács said. The Hungarian official repeatedly asserted that the actions of his government at the EU level were guided strictly by the electoral mandate of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government at home.

Euronews queried how this fitted with an apparent U-turn on the Nature Restoration Law, which MEPs from the ruling Fidesz party supported in the European Parliament at the end of February, but which the government subsequently opposed in the EU Council. “It’s not inconsistency, it’s the spirit and circumstances of the moment," Kovacs said, observing that the European People’s Party had also “changed their minds a couple of times during the debate”.

Any future reconfiguration of the green deal should be done on a consensual basis, he added. “It cannot go against the will of the Hungarian, and not only the Hungarian, but the European farmers.”

On Friday, Orban’s Belgian counterpart Alexander de Croo marked the mid-way point in his own country’s EU Council presidency with a press conference where he was asked about the Green Deal and the fate of the Nature Restoration Law, for which Belgium is ostensibly trying to get the final ministerial rubber stamp while itself abstaining, under pressure from the Flemish region.

“If we want to keep the implementation of the Green Deal on track, we need to come up with an ambitious competitiveness agenda,” De Croo said, arguing it would be impossible without a strong economic base. “The Green Deal will require about one trillion euros every year for the next 25 years,” he said.

There is also a political dimension, he added. “We need to make sure that the political centre remains aligned on the necessity of realising the green deal, and keeping it on track,” De Croo said. He demurred, however, when asked about the Nature Restoration Law, and his own country’s refusal to support it in a final vote.

“What I see throughout Europe is that we are not the only ones that have questions on the Nature Restoration Law, and I see countries in the north, east, west and south of Europe who have their concerns on this,” De Croo said. “Our role is of course to be the compromise builder [but that does not mean] that as Belgians we cannot have an opinion.”

The Belgian prime minister gave no indication of when or if an intergovernmental agreement on the law, intended to reverse a drastic fall in biodiversity, might be expected.