Friday, June 14, 2024

Far-right gains in European elections: what they mean for climate goals

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France’s Rassemblement National (pictured at a campaign meeting last week) was one of a handful of far-right parties that saw significant gains in elections for the European Parliament.Credit: Andrew Pain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The European Green Party has suffered major losses in the European Parliament elections, while far-right parties have made big gains, according to provisional results. Meanwhile, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) held ground as the largest party in parliament.

The outcome of last week’s vote highlights how climate change is less of a priority for voters across the bloc amid the cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the new parliament is unlikely to dismantle key climate goals, say researchers.

“I don’t think that there is going to be appetite to completely ditch the Green Deal,” says Richard Klein at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Bonn, Germany. The European Green deal, first proposed by the European Commission in 2019, is a set of policies that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“When you look at polling data, there’s not much climate scepticism left in Europe,” says Aurélien Saussay, an environmental economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science in London. But people disagree on how to deal with climate change, he adds. “That’s when the difficulty starts – when measures impact people’s standard of living, livelihood and day-to-day habits, that impacts acceptability of climate policies.”

Weaker ambitions

From 6—9 June, hundreds of millions of Europeans voted to elect 720 Members of the European Parliament, which shapes EU laws and policies. Over the past five years, the parliament has been governed by a majority comprised of the centre-right EPP, centre-left Socialists and Democrats, and the liberal party Renew Europe. They have led Europe’s response to climate change and plans for research and innovation.

In this year’s elections, the Greens, which called for stronger climate action, are projected to have lost 18 seats overall and performed particularly badly in France and Germany — both major economic powers in the bloc — where far-right parties made gains. The Greens’ losses follow months of widespread farmers’ protests against environmental policies that planned to cut fuel subsidies and curb the use of pesticides and fertilisers. Before the election, the protests already led the European Union to roll back on such policies, including a plan to halve the use of pesticides in the agricultural sector by 2030. Despite a poor performance overall, the Greens held or gained seats in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands.

A weak presence of Greens in the European Parliament could affect negotiations over a goal proposed by the European commission to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040, compared to 1990 levels. “It would be easier, and we would probably get a more ambitious goal, if parties explicitly supporting strong climate objectives had a stronger showing in the election,” says Saussay.

But Klein does not think the 2040 goal will be scrapped altogether. “Maybe the budgets that will be devoted to these kinds of measures will go down, but I don’t see there being a complete overhaul of climate policy,” says Klein. Still, it is unlikely that more-ambitious climate goals will be agreed upon in future, he says.

One of the first tasks for MEPs will involve choosing the next president of the European Commission, with current president Ursula von der Leyen, of the EPP, hoping to secure a second term. Until the president is chosen, and the next Commissioner for Climate is elected, it is hard to say with much certainty how EU climate action will play out over the next few years, says Saussay.

The next parliament does look set to continue to prioritise scientific-research funding, says Marta Agostinho, executive director of EU-LIFE, an international alliance of research centres that advocate for research in Europe. “The European Parliament is very supportive on research and innovation, and generally speaking, understands the critical value of investing in it,” she says. “According to the election results that we see, I’m still hopeful that this is the case.”

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