Ursula von der Leyen won’t assume the European Commission presidency for another four months, but the battle that will define her tenure is already underway. After years of sluggish European progress on climate change, Von der Leyen has committed herself to a bold new ‘Green Deal’, with the goal of securing carbon neutrality by 2050. She only secured her wafer-thin Parliamentary majority after convincing skeptical left-wing MEPS of her carbon credentials.
But now, after all the promises, she needs to deliver. That means going out and securing support from all the EU’s members, including one particularly rebellious central European state. And for once, we’re not talking about one of the poorer members which have been pilloried for their regressive environmental policies.
This time, it’s her own home country.
Germany has talked a good game on climate change. Angela Merkel has even been dubbed ‘the climate chancellor’, both for her bullish rhetoric on carbon emissions and the key role she played in brokering the UN’s inaugural climate deals while serving as German environment minister in the 1990s. But faced with the lobbying might of German carmakers, Merkel and her ministers have consistently failed to match words with actions.
Despite spending an estimated €500 billion to revamp its energy matrix by getting out of nuclear energy and supposedly coal, it is ironic that Germany remains the biggest coal burner in Europe. Merkel even admits that coal “will remain a pillar of German energy supply for a prolonged time span.” Her government is committed to achieving a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels), yet at present that target is a long way off. When it should be plummeting, Germany’s output of polluting gases has plateaued.
Worse than that, though, Germany has actively tried to thwart some of the EU’s flagship environmental policies. In 2006, just a year into her chancellorship, Merkel decided to dole out pollution permits to her industrial powerhouses, flooring the price of the EU’s emissions trading system. She’s has since ignored warnings about the pollution emanating from the automakers’ diesel engines, and tried to block a new fuel economy standard for European cars. When the EU proposed increasing the share of renewables in its energy mix to 35%, Germany argued furiously that it should go no higher than 30%.
Condemning greenhouse gases, but preaching Nord Stream 2
Perhaps the most dangerous example of German intransigence is Nord Stream 2, the new pipeline which will convey natural gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing transit states such as Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The plans have been met with vehement protest from these countries, not only because they stand to be cut out of the loop. Many believe that, once Nord Stream 2 is built, Russia will turn off the taps on its former satellites and ramp up its campaign of military provocation.
Still Germany stands firm, prioritizing its own energy needs over the rest of Europe, even though using natural gas – a fossil fuel, for all its claims of cleanliness – won’t help its climate track record and the emissions reductions deadlines Berlin is already set to miss by a wide margin. Nor is the carbon dioxide the only greenhouse gas European environmentalists are worried about; the production system managed by Russia’s Gazprom, which is behind the Nord Stream 2 project, has a notoriously high “fugitive emissions” rate for methane that makes its natural gas no cleaner than coal. As a 2017 Atlantic Council/Free Russia report points out, Gazprom itself has been dismissive of both renewable energy technologies and European energy transitions.
German officials, for their part, flatly deny that the pipeline will undermine gas diversification in Europe or pose a threat to Ukraine. They have even tried to prevent the EU from extending its gas liberalization rules to Nord Stream 2, which would give Brussels a measure of control over Russian energy giant Gazprom. The decision has caused a split between Germany and France, a gap at the heart of Europe which Vladimir Putin is happy to exploit.
Building a closer, cleaner Europe
Von der Leyen has set herself firmly against such division, pledging to promote a stronger, closer Europe. In fact, she was nominated for her ability to repair relations between Paris and Berlin. She’s also known for her uncompromising attitude towards the Kremlin’s divisive tactics. But will she be able to stand up to Germany – and her former boss?
It won’t be easy. Von der Leyen has long been a Merkel ally, and the German chancellor is a key figure in her own European People’s Party. The EPP, the biggest voting bloc in the European Parliament, is already suspicious of Von der Leyen because she reportedly failed to consult them over her climate plans. Yet Von der Leyen is pitched herself as a candidate capable of bold, disruptive action, and she does have a clear mandate to take on Europe’s biggest powerbrokers.
While she might jeopardise the support of conservative Parliamentarians by taking on Germany, Von der Leyen owes her election victory as much to progressive blocs such as the Socialists and Renew Europe as to the EPP. These blocs will expect her to repay their faith. A bold stand in relation to Berlin might also win the support of the powerful Green bloc, which voted against Von der Leyen because they believe her environmental strategy doesn’t go far enough.
One can’t expect Von der Leyen to block Nord Stream 2 overnight or stop Germany from burning coal any time soon, but by pushing Germany to prioritize the EU’s collective interests over its own, and by embracing a more progressive environmental agenda in line with its neighbors, Von der Leyen can deliver on her mandate to build a cleaner, greener, and more united Europe.