The European Green Deal – a success story? Nation states must now make the next move


In order to achieve the declared goal of turning Europe into the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the member states in general, but also the German government in particular, must take a far more resolute approach when implementing the European Green Deal. The necessary pressure to do so is being exerted by citizens and at the EU level alike.

European Green Deal

European Green Deal originated from a bottom-up momentum that found its democratic expression in 2019

The large-scale mobilisation of young individuals, the locally implemented and globally connected Fridays For Future movement, various climate change lawsuits, and, not least of all, decisions made at the ballot box manifest the unease felt by European citizens about the climate crisis as well as other environmental risks. The outcomes of the most recent EU elections gave the European Parliament and the Commission – under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen – a clear, democratic mandate to expand climate protection throughout the EU. A little more than six months down the line, in December 2019, the European Green Deal was on the table.

And the concerns expressed by these citizens are not waning. A survey recently conducted by the European Investment Bank (EIB) suggests that 70% of Europeans endorse more stringent climate protection measures. Business communities are equally concerned, as confirmed in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, in which the climate crisis tops the list of global risks. The coronavirus pandemic has not dispelled environmental or climate change concerns; quite the contrary.

The European Green Deal deserves to be supported by civil society. It marks a belated, though brave, attempt to submit elements to a new social contract which – if stringently implemented ‒ will pave the way for future generations to enjoy a prosperous life that is no longer founded on consumption-based privileges but, instead, stems the climate and biodiversity crisis and enables sustainable business models and lifestyles. In this regard, a functioning EU would be guided by the preservation of our local and global environments, basic rights and the democratic area of freedom – including for future generations and people elsewhere – and of social justice. At stake therefore is the safeguarding of a liberal democracy no less, and this requires timely, ambitious climate protection measures and a conservation of resources.

Through the Green Deal, the EU is putting its climate mandate to use and is stepping up the pace – but there is room for improvement.

First pillar of the EU’s momentum on climate action: the European Climate Law and the new climate targets are a game changer. Whilst not yet fully compliant with the Paris Agreement, the core element of the European Green Deal ‒ the European Climate Law ‒ finally shows a legally binding pathway forward. The climate targets that have now been decided for 2050 (climate neutrality) and 2030 (net emissions reduction of at least 55%) set the compass around which political action must find its bearings. With its ‘Fit for 55 Package’, the Commission is currently working flat out on the sectoral implementation of these targets. When drafting this legislative package, the key issue is to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity is preserved – or even reinforced. No matter how important European targets and instruments may be, if the efforts required to achieve effective levels of climate protection rest entirely on EU instruments and decisions are solely made in Brussels, then nation states, and regions and municipalities for that matter, will have a hard time appropriating the European Green Deal. Given the ongoing, heavily fragmented nature of the media, civil society, and political parties at the national level, it is essential that the national, regional, and local levels take ownership. If they fail to identify with the Green Deal, we run the risk of weariness of the EU creeping in. This tension is illustrated, for example, in the most recent debate surrounding a new EU carbon pricing instrument in areas not covered by the Emissions Trading System: responsibility must reside with the member states, if only for reasons of social justice among the various high-income EU states.

The Financial Toolbox is the second pillar and the driving force behind the EU’s momentum on climate action. If used well, it can help accelerate the Green Deal. Aside from the climate targets and their sectoral implementation, there is a considerable financial toolbox at EU level. The entire package, some 1.824 trillion euros (EU budget, combined with the EU Recovery Fund in the wake of the Next Generation EU toolbox to counter the impact of the coronavirus pandemic: some 750 billion euros) adopted by the EU goes hand in hand with the increased expenditure for climate and environmental protection measures. Of the 2021-2027 EU budget (some 1.1 trillion euros), 30% are intended to be allocated as climate protection expenses (as opposed to the 20% allocation during the last budgetary phase). The regional funds of the EU budget (European Regional Development Fund [EFRE], the European Social Fund [ESF], and the European Cohesion Fund) seek to achieve the “green transformation” and are required to commit 30% of these funds to them. Moreover, the National Recovery and Resilience Plans are required to devote 37% (around 672.5 billion euros) of total expenditure to climate protection. The regrettably low endowment of just 17.5 billion euros allotted to the Just Transition Fund is a start nevertheless and will help regions and municipalities that have thus far been fossil-intensive to move towards climate neutrality. The “do no significant harm” principle applied to the climate targets is a must when deploying all of the EU funding ‒ for the EU’s recovery and its internal cohesion. Last but not least, the EU programmes resulting from the EU budget and the Recovery Fund are needs-focused. This means that they provide guidelines without prescribing how the individual states and regions should use the EU funds. The states and regions concerned have a better understanding of how to do this. This toolbox ‒ a combination of all the EU coffers ‒ therefore also observes the all-important principle of subsidiarity. Should stimulus packages and funding from the EU budgetary programmes be channelled into investment projects that are based on fossil technologies, these will first need to be decommissioned before they are written off if the climate targets are still to be achieved. This would lead to a massive wave of lost investments. But if they are pushed in the right, sustainable, and viable direction ‒ in the buildings sector; in climate-friendly transport, energy, and digital infrastructure, for example ‒ the transformation towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions will actually accelerate.

The legal and financial toolboxes have room for improvement – but they are in place. The envisaged screening criteria in particular are in need of improvement, one area being the EU Taxonomy, which is currently the subject of intense negotiation and in danger of being watered down. Similarly, the European Semester, the assessing entity for national budgets, needs to be realigned to cater to climate-friendly considerations. Whilst the toolbox needs to be tightened further, in particular where the screening criteria and monitoring are concerned, it is nevertheless worth noting that it is now up to the regions and member states themselves to set out, in their own customised national plans, how they intend to expend this EU funding (whether in the Recovery and Resilience Plans [RRP], Just Transition Plans [JTP], Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plans [GAP Strategic Plans], etc. and, soon to be reinstated, the updated National Energy and Climate Plans [NECP]). National and regional ownership is a further invaluable element when it comes to the climate-friendly structuring of EU investments. Decisions to invest in economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic must also help to achieve the more ambitious 2030 climate targets. Only if the aforementioned EU coffers are principally and systematically invested in the ecological transformation and accompanied by structural reforms can the doors be opened for the climate targets to be exceeded, thus leading to an acceleration of the Green Deal. The momentum must therefore come from the member states and regions.

Member states caught between two dynamics: where’s the urgency at the national level?

With regard to the European Climate Law and 2030 climate targets, the Council has barely moved an inch. In light of what is scientifically necessary, and in equity terms, for the 1.5-degree global warming limit to be met, and in light of the European Parliament’s call to set the target at 60 percent, this comes up way too short. This means that the member states have scarcely shifted away from their December 2020 policy decision and have done nothing to drive the climate-policy momentum. And it gets worse: even though the member states knew in December 2020 at the latest that they would, at some point, have to set an ambitious EU climate target, countries such as Germany and France took no pre-emptive action nor were they prepared at home. Admittedly, France is in the throes of putting together a national climate change law; its compass is already outdated, however. The 2030 target underpinning Germany’s Climate Protection Law has still not been adjusted and will most likely have to wait until a new coalition government is formed, which, in the best-case scenario, is seven to eight months away. Hence, momentum at the national level is more like a stutter – though there has been some perceptible shift, albeit it still on a low scale, such as in Poland, where the government no longer hesitates to mention that coal will be phased out by 2050 and is pushing forward with its plans to achieve 11 GW offshore wind power capacity in a move to benefit from jobs created through renewable energy sources and to secure renewed energy sovereignty. The wait-and-see stance adopted by key member states is costing European citizens valuable time, however, when combating the climate crisis. In an attempt to justify their actions, numerous member states are also all too happy to refer to the Commission’s upcoming legislative package designed to ensure implementation of the climate targets ‒ the ‘Fit for 55 Package’. The Federal Constitutional Court’s historic decision declaring Germany’s Climate Protection Law to be partially unconstitutional is, however, a clear illustration that more needs to be done at the national level, and faster.

EU member states must fulfil their promise on the European Green Deal, including on how EU funding will be used. Member states are in the process of developing their Recovery and Resilience Plans (RRPs), Regional Development Fund Plans, and Just Transition Plans and submitting them to the Commission. This coincides with the decision on how EU funds should be spent in the coming years. The pending plans for spending national and regional EU funds must be entirely climate-proof, not contain any receivables for fossil fuels, and must outline clear investment plans for achieving climate neutrality. And, yet, what have the member states and also the German government done so far? The bare minimum. Based on independent calculations, the Recovery and Resilience Plans proposed by such key states as France and Germany are conspicuous for their lack of specific climate- or eco-friendly efforts. The Commission’s hope that these two plans would serve as a positive example remains all too faint. There is also no mention of any climate-just or socially-fair structural reforms. In spite of its re-formulated goal of being fossil-fuel free by 2050, Poland plans to expand its consumption of fossil gases and is running the risk of financing its dependence on fossil fuels using EU funding, which will commit the country to carbon emissions for decades to come. Best-practice examples can certainly be found, but the overall impression that has been given to date, of a sustainable and truly climate-oriented pathway out of the coronavirus and economic crisis, continues to be somewhat mixed. This is a far cry from climate policy momentum that seeks to implement the European Green Deal’s targets at the national level.