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Mounting discontent augurs badly for EU Green Deal

Mounting discontent augurs badly for EU Green Deal

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Rasmus Grand Berthelsen is director for the Nordics at Rasmussen Global.

As the 2024 European election approaches, a notable shift is occurring across major countries in the European Union: Voters are turning away from Green parties amid a rising tide of right-wing populism and anti-EU sentiment.

Opinion polls consistently indicate substantial gains for hard-right parties in countries like Germany and Italy, coinciding with losses for centrist factions. And a significant portion of this shift can be attributed to voter dissatisfaction with the EU’s climate transition policies.

Since 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has presided over the greenest Commission in history, and her commitment to the Green Deal has been unwavering. However, as she now aims to secure another term, von der Leyen may encounter a different political landscape while navigating the more contentious final pieces of the Green Deal, as well as its Fit-for-55 legislative package.

Earlier this month, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola — who is part of the same center-right political grouping as von der Leyen — voiced her concern, emphasizing how the expanding list of climate and industrial regulations coming from Brussels is pushing voters toward populist and anti-EU parties ahead of next year’s election. And as the bloc’s climate approach is already generating social unrest in member countries, it’s time the EU reconsidered its approach.

The right-wing Farmer-Citizen Movement, which emerged in 2019, is now the dominant party in the Dutch Senate and all provincial assemblies. And the party is on a direct collision course with the EU over a Dutch policy to curb nitrogen from farming.

Italy’s right-wing government, voted in late last year, is also pushing back against various EU initiatives, arguing local businesses cannot afford the previously agreed-upon green targets. Italy has demanded the EU dilute a directive aimed at improving the energy efficiency of buildings, reevaluate plans to phase out combustion engines and questioned the drive to reduce industrial emissions.

Poland’s popular right-wing government has gone one step further, taking Brussels to court. The Polish government claims it has filed complaints regarding the bloc’s 2035 ban on combustion-engine vehicles, the accelerated emissions reduction target, the reduction of free carbon permits and what it considers to be interference in national forest management.

In Germany, meanwhile, concerns over a law to phase out oil and gas heating nearly broke the ruling coalition this spring. And after weeks of negotiations, the original bill was watered down. Dissatisfaction with the EU’s 2035 ban on combustion vehicles also turned the country’s centrist voters more Euroskeptic, even impacting all three parties in Germany’s Traffic Light coalition in state elections this year, according to pollsters.

The EU has consistently positioned itself as a global leader in the bid to curb climate change, advocating ambitious targets and endorsing green initiatives. However, effective climate action demands more than regulations — it necessitates strong incentives to drive behavioral change, foster industrial collaboration and, above all, instill a public understanding of the transition’s advantages.

But while well-intentioned, EU regulations have inadvertently fostered a perception of excessive bureaucracy and regulatory burdens for both citizens and companies. Instead of emphasizing the potential benefits of transitioning to a green economy through incentive schemes and initiatives, the Brussels policy machine has churned out a slew of fresh regulations and directives, triggering an unintended backlash that risks undermining Europe’s very own climate agenda from within.

Fueled by perceptions of overregulation, this growing discontent is amplifying the discord between the bloc’s climate aspirations and the practical realities faced by member countries.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

When national governments are tasked with implementing new EU legislation, their politicians face a dilemma: Do they present it as their own initiative, or as a mandate imposed by Brussels?

Consider building efficiency, for example. In Denmark — which leads the world in heat pump manufacturers — phasing out residential gas heaters and higher emissions standards in construction are popular policies. By contrast, Italy, which is home to some of Europe’s oldest buildings, and Germany — where half the population heats its homes with gas and a quarter of the population does so with oil — do not see the benefit of such expensive regulations.

No rational politician wants to be the face of contentious policies, of course. So, while the Danish government presented this as its own initiative, the German and Italian governments sought to deflect blame by downplaying their own responsibility and emphasizing the role of Brussels.

Paradoxically, even in member countries where the general population actively supports and votes for higher climate targets, the perception of external imposition by the EU tends to prevail.

In this scenario, dissatisfaction with climate policies and EU skepticism become two sides of the same coin. And Metsola’s call for a “proportionality test” and a proper cost assessment for new regulations underscores the bloc’s imperative to adjust its approach.

The political implications are evident: As we’ve seen across the Continent, discontented voters will likely abandon traditional centrist pro-EU parties and gravitate toward broader protest movements that harbor more skeptical attitudes when it comes to Brussels. This shift, in turn, threatens to weaken overall support for the EU’s climate and biodiversity policies, which would be detrimental not just to Europe but to the planet.

Thus, a key element of Europe’s needed transformation is to refocus, shifting from regulations and directives to incentives, innovation and industrial collaboration.

The success story of renewable energy in Texas serves as an illustrative example.

Here, the pragmatic financial incentives and tax breaks from United States President Joe Biden’s administration have encouraged a surge in renewable energy installations across the state, from sprawling wind farms to expansive solar arrays. Texas, once known for its oil rigs, is now home to cutting-edge research and development in clean energy, and it produces more wind and solar power than any other U.S. state.

Economic growth, new jobs and public support has followed.

In Europe, member countries must be encouraged to take similar ownership of climate policies that align with their specific needs and priorities. Rather than framing EU climate regulations as imposed mandates, governments should see them as frameworks and incentives that allow for tailored green solutions.

This would not only alleviate public resentment, but it would also empower governments to proactively drive new measures and address the unique challenges their citizens face.

Europe’s green agenda currently stands at a crossroads. Next year’s election is a critical juncture, and the rise of Euroskepticism and discontent over these policies are a warning sign. So, if pro-European centrist parties wish to sustain momentum for the Continent’s climate transition, now is the time for a thorough reevaluation of its climate strategy.

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